Simone Biles competes on balance beam at the Rio Olympics.
Photo Credit: Agência Brasil

Like many Americans, I was very excited to watch Simone Biles compete in Tokyo at this summer’s Olympic Games – after all, she is the greatest gymnast of our time, and potentially of all time. As disappointed as I was to not see her compete further, I was glad to hear that she prioritized her own well-being above the competition. I thought that was a normal reaction – what I did not expect was the blowback from many in our nation regarding Biles’ decision. Thus, I feel a public service announcement must be issued: 

American Olympians are humans with dignity. They do not exist for us. They are athletes – not American servants. 

It is not a problem to want to see the United States dominate on a global stage – I want that too. The notion that the athletes that have traveled to Tokyo somehow belong to the United States simply because they are competing on our behalf IS problematic. This thought is what has empowered many in our nation to dehumanize fellow Americans in a nationalistic show of selfish idolatry. 

Take the troubling comments from well-known Donald Trump supporter and young Republican Charlie Kirk. He stated the following in response to Biles’ decision: 

Let’s continue to use Biles as a case study. She has won America MANY gold medals. She has competed with broken toes, ribs, and a massive kidney stone. She has endured sexual assault at the hands of a Team USA doctor, sacrificed a normal childhood and life, and has worked through the deterioration of her body. 

Biles is a strong woman and has sacrificed a lot for the United States. But she never HAD to do so – she could have quit gymnastics years ago. She could quit gymnastics forever tomorrow and it would still be entirely her decision. She is a human with autonomy and dignity – she worked hard, she got here, and it is her decision whether to stay or to go. 

And, she even tried to compete in Tokyo. The mental block she is working through is dangerous, as evidenced by a few of her tries. It likely would have resulted in a plummeting team score for Team USA along with a potentially very bad physical injury. Biles was not just self-aware and wise when she withdrew – she was selfless, continuing to cheer on and serve her team. 

The selfish idolatry and dehumanization of American athletes (not to mention all other public figures we assume should serve at our every whim) is an outpouring of the very worst side of American patriotism. And, I would be amiss to neglect the damage that the vitriolic response to Biles’ decision is doing to our national discussion on mental health. Biles is unlikely to see the nasty tweets aimed her way, but the struggling friends and family of that Twitter user will. 

Healthy patriotism looks like appreciation of those who choose to serve their country – in this case, by representing us on an athletic international stage. It looks like applause for and respect of their choices, not demanding their obligatory service. It looks like thankfulness for their sacrifices, whatever they are, that take America to further greatness. The reaction to Biles proved one thing: America needs to step back, take a long look in the mirror, and reassess our treatment of not only our Olympians but other fellow Americans that have been given a platform. 

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