By now, gymnast Simone Biles has received enough praise and condemnation over her withdrawal from USA Olympic Team events in Tokyo to last a lifetime. In human history, there is no stage for athletic competition greater than the Olympic Games, and Biles defied norms by bowing out, to protect her health and safety and to give her teammates a chance to win medals.
Naysayers, however, call her a quitter, or say she cost other gymnasts a shot at their dreams (because gymnasts who did not qualify in the preliminary rounds are not permitted to fill in for someone who did). But in Biles’ line of work, in contrast to basketball, beach volleyball, ping pong and myriad other events, anything other than piercing focus and peak health can be a matter of life and death, or life and lifelong health challenges.
Even bigger, Biles entered these Games as the lone active Olympic gymnast who survived Larry Nassar, the disgraced physician employed by USA Gymnastics who was sentenced to 125 years in prison for his serial abuse of young women. In Biles’ eyes, however, Nassar’s imprisonment does not abscond USA Gymnastics of its (potentially criminal) failings and full accountability has not been achieved. In spite of her own pain, Biles knew she had to be there to keep the storyline in the news and to renew the demand for a full accounting of who knew what, and when.
“If there weren’t a remaining survivor in the sport, they would’ve just brushed it aside,” Biles said in an interview with NBC prior to the start of competition.
So, in addition to meeting GOAT-level expectations on the floor, beam, vault and uneven bars, Biles was expected to do so while carrying the trauma of what Nassar did to her, the trauma of USA Basketball’s betrayal in not protecting her, the trauma of the reckless indifference shown to her and the other victims by all who looked the other way, and she was the was expected to execute this forbearance alone.
In other words, she carried the weight of the world into the Tokyo Olympics. It makes sense that the entangled circumstances would collide, and that she rightfully dropped the burden on the biggest stage.
And with all of that going on, Biles was not lamenting that a bad case of the “twisties” derailed her pursuit of medals. She was thinking of ways to avoid letting her struggles compromise her teammates’ ability to win some of their own.
“I didn’t want to risk the team a medal for, kind of, my screwups,” Biles said in a press conference after withdrawing from the team competition. “Because they’ve worked way too hard for that. So I just decided that those girls need to go and do the rest of our competition.”
The winner of 25 World Championship medals (including 19 gold) and six Olympic medals (including four gold), Biles has the hardware that proves her generational talent. She weighed her desire for a cherry atop an already storied career against her teammates’ search for a first layer of cake and she stepped aside to let them eat cake.
It is a stark contrast to the way Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, already with four gold medals apiece, cling to USA Basketball roster spots in spite of being diminished on the court by injuries. Unlike Biles, they are willing to play as much weaker versions of themselves, with potential to cost the USA a gold medal, rather than surrender their seat so that other qualified players can realize their Olympic dreams, too.
USA Basketball has been complicit, if not the ringleader, of dashing these athletes’ dreams. And with its failure to enact a fair process for granting these opportunities, the players benefitting from the privilege the most have feigned ignorance.
Taurasi has been asked repeatedly about her health. She missed 12 of the 19 games the Phoenix Mercury played before the Olympic break due to a fractured sternum and hip injury. In the 2020 WNBA bubble season, she missed five games with a hip injury. And she played just six games in the 2019 season due to a back injury for which she underwent surgery in the following offseason.
Yet, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer attributes her nearly two-decade professional career to luck.
“It’s just lucky, you know?” Taurasi said of longevity in the WNBA and with the USA women’s national team. “You put all those years in all those camps and you never think that you’ll be able to play so many. For one, I’m lucky enough.”
For a woman as shrewd and as intelligent as Taurasi, it is hard to take her words seriously. She claims to avoid social media and yet seems to know what others are saying about her on the various platforms, indicating that she is probably acutely aware of the criticisms lobbed at USA Basketball over a selection process that snubbed Nneka Ogwumike, a long-time devotee to USA Basketball who was integral to the team’s 2018 FIBA World Cup win, from vying for even one Olympic medal but granting Taurasi and Bird a chance at a fifth medal apiece.
“It’s just being around a really good group of people, from USA Basketball management to players and coaches, just really lucky, really fortunate,” Taurasi added.
Here, she hits on the truth. The “really good group of people” of USA Basketball has systematically favored players from UConn in its selection process and demonstrated unwavering commitment to helping Taurasi and Bird shore up their individual legacies. To the athletes on the other side of this dynamic — Ogwumike, Candace Parker, the myriad other elite, future Hall of Fame-type players — the decision-makers are probably not viewed as a “really good group of people,” but insiders executing closed-door deals without transparency.
Carol Callan, long-time leader of the USA Basketball Selection Committee, has said she will step down from her role after this year, and hopefully the new committee chair will bring in fresh blood. Currently, UConn Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma (Special Advisor), Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller (WNBA) and Minnesota Lynx assistant coach Katie Smith (Athlete Representative) hold positions on the committee.
Auriemma’s influence is apparent in the disproportionate number of players from his program who make USA Basketball rosters compared to elite players who matriculate elsewhere.
But until changes happen at the top, players who have benefitted from the favoritism must develop the conscience and moral fiber to recognize as greedy the pursuit of more than three gold medals, given the vast talent pool the NCAA and WNBA provide. And if the favored players remain unwilling, those who have been wronged by the system should feel entitled to use their platform to amplify the issue the way Biles has done with USA Gymnastics during the Tokyo Olympics.
USA’S UGLY BALL HAS AMOUNTED TO TOKYO WINS … SO FAR
Through three games of Olympic competition, Team USA stands alone as the only undefeated team in Group B, with three wins against Nigeria, Japan and France.
A win is a win, but it hasn’t been pretty outside of A’ja Wilson’s dominance. Through the three games of group play, Wilson is averaging a team-high 20.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. She recorded double-doubles in the games against Nigeria and Japan.
Yet, the Americans would have been handed a blowout loss if more of Nigeria’s shots had fallen in the first contest. Nigeria scored 16 points off USA’s 25 turnovers and it was the rebounding of Wilson and Brittney Griner (who also had a double-double) that got the Americans the opening-round win.
Against Japan, Breanna Stewart stepped up with a double-double to match Wilson’s, and USA also got double-digit scoring from Taurasi and Jewell Loyd.
Taurasi, meanwhile, is averaging 6.8 points, 1.6 assists and 0.8 rebound per game.
Bird, the chief playmaker, is averaging 6.5 assists, plus 3.8 points and 2.5 rebounds.
So, it’s not terrible how the Americans are doing, but it’s also not the best they could be performing. We saw America’s best in Team WNBA’s 93-85 thumping of Team USA at this year’s All-Star Game, led by All-Star Game MVP Arike Ogunbowale’s 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field and 5-of-10 shooting from 3-point range. She and her teammates proved themselves to be the crisper, more focused and fresh-legged bunch.
But USA Basketball sent the team it did and that team has potential to win a gold, though tarnished, medal. And if Bird and Taurasi actually believe the Selection Committee sent the best players — that the team can’t win without them — maybe they should consult with Biles on that, too, because Biles had faith that her teammates would do better without her. She did not view herself as the team’s savior. In her absence, the USA Gymnastics team won the all-around silver medal, Suni Lee won gold in the individual all-round competition, MyKayla Skinner won silver on vault and Jade Carey won gold on floor.
Not bad for a group of mostly unknown gymnasts who lack Biles’ experience and generational talent, yet who are demonstrably well-trained, accomplished athletes — much like the WNBA’s 144 players, bottom to top.
The Americans will need their very best when the quarterfinals tip off on Wednesday, pitting the U.S. on a collision course with the world’s best. Spain (3-0) has dominated Group A and China (3-0) knocked off a Belgium team rife with WNBA talent — Emma Meesseman, Julie Allemand, Kim Mestdagh — to become the lone undefeated team in Group C.
The USA is not at its best with Taurasi version 2021 on the team. After sustaining what appeared to be a hand injury in the early going against France, she asked head coach Dawn Staley to sub her out. On the sideline, she appeared frustrated with herself and clearly at war with her own body. It is a sight as painful to watch as the look of USA Basketball no longer dominating on the world stage, and putting its gold medal potential at risk because of loyalty to a few individuals over the good of the team.
In an interview with GQ, Candace Parker was asked about being left off the 2016 Olympic Team in similar fashion to how Nneka Ogwumike was left off in 2021, in spite of both women paying their dues. “I’m past it,” Parker said. “It’s 2021. I’ve moved on. I’ve done pretty well up until this point. But at the same time: it would’ve been nice. Who doesn’t dream of being in the Olympics? I’ve already experienced that, but there are some who’ve been left off the team who haven’t had the experience and I don’t think that’s right.”
Taurasi, meanwhile, in her 20-year commandeering of a USA Olympic Team roster sport, scored three points against France on one-of-two shot attempts from beyond the arc and dished two assists.
She also turned the ball over twice and picked up three personal fouls.