All of this chalked up by the growing fatigue of the performance. Carrying the banner of America and all the ideals within it has always been problematic for black people. But these days it can be downright traumatic. That trauma was visible earlier this week, when two black police officers, Harry Dunn and Aquilino Gonell, testified before the new House committee investigating the January 6 insurgency, talking about their experiences on that fateful day in the country. Capitol. Their simple, detailed descriptions of how they were repeatedly assaulted, attacked, and called the n word by an enraged, mostly white mob, were gruesome; seeing the officers cry in pain and anguish at the memories was more than poignant. Their emotional vulnerability was well deserved, and possibly overdue. Cops are not star athletes, but they are authority figures charged with defending American ideals, in this case maintaining the line of democracy – a Herculean task that goes far beyond an Olympian task.
Officers sometimes seemed at their wit’s end – a place black people are supposed to avoid at all costs. Distress is what black people are never supposed to recognize, neither to the world nor to themselves, although distress, discouragement, and despair accompany the territory of being Black in America. For this reason, not displaying or succumbing to such feelings has long been a key part of the racial struggle. Although we now think of them as billionaire celebrities, athletes have always been intimately linked to this struggle. Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, but not without epic, sometimes violent, harassment from white fans and fellow players. Not complaining was part of his job, but stifling all that emotion likely contributed to his poor health and untimely death at 53. Long before Biles, Muhammad Ali declared himself the greatest of all time, a decidedly non-stoic position that made him a hero – among black people. The fact that he was a Muslim convert who also opposed the Vietnam War guaranteed suspicion, if not outright hostility, among whites. This was Ali’s goal during the Black Power era; a former Olympian, he went on to actively reject carrying the banner of America, literally and otherwise. His self-definition was pioneering, but it came at a price: as a taller, he could never show vulnerability or hesitation. He declared himself a Black Superman and then had to live up to it.
Yet Ali, like Jackie Robinson, expected the weight of the world to rest on his shoulders. Biles might have expected the same – it’s hard to imagine otherwise, given the hype surrounding her in Tokyo – but she is breaking new ground by being among the first to publicly admit that weight can be too large and it’s okay to put it down for a moment. Or longer. Describing the self-doubt that led her to leave the team competition (she also later withdrew from the all-around), Biles stressed the need to prioritize self-preservation over performance or prove its worth. “I didn’t want to go out there and do something stupid and hurt myself. It’s not worth it, ”she said. “We are not just athletes, we are people.
Of course, that post has been entirely lost on his conservative critics, mostly white men like Charlie Kirk and Piers Morgan. Kirk ransacked Biles as a “national embarrassment”, while Morgan said she “let it go [her] campaign. ”Aaron Reitz, assistant attorney general for Texas, declared her“ national embarrassment. ”(He later apologized.) While there is room for discussion of Biles’ decision, comments like these seem rooted in old racist assumptions that black people are inherently incapable of representing America.
The silver lining of the overt racism that infects a good half of the country is that it has sparked new and sustained levels of activism among black athletes. NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem honoring black victims of police shootings in 2016 – and took a lot of heat for it – in turn cheering other elite athletes in other sports to speak out as concerned black citizens, and to substantiate their concern with action. Biles is part of this new tradition. His thoughtful but resounding ‘no’ is the result of a new kind of introspection that increasingly looks inward, rather than out to the world, for direction. The existential problem is no longer the integration of blacks into the country, but the integration of the country into them.
Right-wing pundits can criticize Biles’ suitability to represent anything they want, but the prosecution has lost its moral force, if ever it has. Taking his angst seriously, Biles rejects the general shame that has been imposed on black people, whether they win or not. It’s time.