Column: Welcome Home, Simone

Simone Biles withdrew from four events at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the mediocrities of America shouted, “Quitter!” The world’s greatest gymnast of all time was there to amuse and represent America, and she said, “No.” She refused to risk her life doing aerial maneuvers that no one had done before and which defied gravity. Surely, she was not distracted by the pandemic that sent more than 200 other participants in the games packing. Surely, she was not affected by the unremitting attention to her every act and action, the ceaseless dissection of every smile or frown, the constant probing of her past and speculation on her future.

That none of her family or friends was allowed to join her in Tokyo to provide emotional support certainly could not adversely affect this superhuman woman. Surely, she carried no burdens from the sexual assault she had suffered during her training and competition at the hands of Dr. Larry Nasser, the physician hired by USA Gymnastics, an organization that always expressed concern for her safety and sanity.

She claimed that she was having problems with her focus and her ability to perform horrifically dangerous feats that she had done dozens of times before. America expected so much more from her. If she had just “sucked it up” and risked her life and survived and not been left paralyzed from the neck down, she would have gotten a parade in a state that did not treat African-Americans as lepers and certainly would have gotten a shiny medal from the current administration. I do not recall the prior administration having anything to say about her courage or talent during those four years when she became a source of inspiration for young women all over the world. Some might attribute that to unapologetic racism and misogyny, but perhaps it was just an oversight. 

Simone will probably retire soon and settle in Texas. If she can comply with the soon-to-be-passed voter suppression laws in that state, she may get to vote. Of course, her vote will probably be disqualified by the Texas state legislature if it does not support the correct candidates. If she is annoyed by Texas’ failure to treat her as a full-fledged citizen with the rights and privileges routinely afforded Texans with fair skin or wealthy families, she will soon discover that more than half of the states in the United States are not offering her the privileges spelled out in the Constitution. 

If she takes a tour of America, she will find a country littered with monuments to slave-owners, slave traders, and soldiers who fought valiantly to keep people who look like her enslaved. The pedestals holding these embarrassing monuments could hold statues of John Frémont [the first Republican candidate for President], Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and the hundreds of other uncelebrated Americans who helped rid our country of its original sin, slavery.

Of course, there are signs that the times they are [ah?] changing. The governor of Tennessee recently said that he would not interfere with the relocation of the bust commemorating Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state capitol [where it was first installed in 1978] to a museum. The relocation of this memorial will be conducted with all the dignity and solemnity that the great state of Tennessee feels it owes to this slave trader, Confederate general, and founder of the Klu Klux Klan.

Because she is African-American and not Scandinavian-American she will discover that her access to an affordable mortgage is still restricted by a practice called red-lining. This practice was instituted by the federal government decades ago to keep people with dark skin out of neighborhoods with people with light skin. It has been ruled illegal by the same government that insisted it be observed, but it is still alive and well. Because she is an African-American woman, she will discover that her employment options are much more limited and her lifetime earnings potential will be substantially less than if she were white, but America will still somehow probably thank her for her commitment to athletics. The government might guarantee a loan she takes out to open a gymnasium, but even that consideration is unlikely given America’s treatment of its Black athletes after they stop performing.

According to one mainstream media report I read, Simone insisted that she was not at the Olympics to represent the United States. She was there to represent women of color. If she did say that, it must have been leaked out of the Olympic prison she is in by a fellow athlete. Her well-disciplined handlers would not allow such a statement to be attributed to this American icon. Comments from these Olympians routinely sound like remarks sanitized for fortune cookies or cereal boxes. That an athlete would dare suggest that she was not at the Games for God and Country is too refreshing to imagine.

And so, we sit in our dens, drinking beers and eating potato chips, and marvel at the prowess of the athletes that tested negative for Covid-19 and did not smoke marijuana after the death of a parent. They are competing against some of the best athletes in the world, including those from Russia who were excluded from the games for state-sponsored doping. The Russian athletes were allowed to compete despite the ban because they represent the “Russian Olympic Committee,” not Russia, but the African-American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson could not compete because she smoked a joint after her mother’s funeral. The logic eludes me.

This is not the first Olympics requiring footnotes, but it is undoubtedly the most bizarre and perhaps the least engaging. We are witnessing spectator sports with virtually no spectators. We have international competitors locked inside what is euphemistically being called the “Olympic Bubble” while the city outside the bubble is in rebellion against the proceedings inside the bubble. This is more a catastrophe than an event. 

Of course, we have had bizarre Olympics in the past. Perhaps the most memorable was the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The African-American superstar Jesse Owens eviscerated the lie of white superiority by winning four gold medals, but his treatment by the German host [Adolf Hitler], who turned his back on the American champion, and by the American Olympic Committee, which insisted on his being segregated from the white American athletes, left a stain on the Olympics that could never be removed. 

The American Olympic Committee and the U.S. Government further disgraced themselves that year by barring American Jews from competing out of deference to the Nazis and by refusing to allow Jesse Owens and the 17 other African-American Olympic medal winners to join the white athletes in a congratulatory meeting at the White House with President Roosevelt. The African-American Olympic athletes from the 1936 Berlin Games were allowed to participate in a dinner at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but they were obliged to take the service elevator to the dinner because blacks were not allowed on the guest elevators with whites.

If I could speak to Simone Biles, I would say, “Congratulations. You are the best. You have already done more than should be asked of any person. Come home. You do not need any more distinctions from those who cannot distinguish.”

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