Tokyo Olympics

We Don't Need Simone Biles to Play Through Pain — Physical or Mental

After U.S. gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from a team competition, fans are expressing thanks for the spectacular performances they got to witness over the years. And it started a larger conversation about what we expect of athletes.

We love to elevate stories in which pain is rewarded with sports glory.

Any basketball fan who remembers the '90s could reminisce about the NBA Finals game Michael Jordan played with the flu — "I almost played myself into passing out just to win a basketball game," the basketball GOAT reportedly said.

Dodger Kirk Gibson took the field with injuries in both legs and hit a World Series game-winning home run. And gymnast Kerri Strug is idolized for attempting one more vault at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and landing gingerly on an injured ankle. Strug's painful vault got the U.S. the gold!

There's a perception that you do what you can to help the team, however you can, despite what you're feeling or how much it hurts.

And that's coming into play now, after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the women's gymnastics team final at this year's Tokyo Olympics. USA Gymnastics cited a "medical issue" and said Biles "will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions."

Suddenly, fans of Team USA were speculating: Is Biles out of the Olympics for good? Can we hold out hope she can return for the individual competition?

But Biles says it wasn't an injury, rather "just a little injury to my pride" and that she didn't want to go on after her performance. Reports of those statements immediately led to comments that Biles should be more like Strug, and compete through whatever she was struggling with, whether physical or mental.

Our pantheon of sports idols doesn't seem to include athletes who played while struggling with mental health. Just physical pain. We hear stories afterward in the Players' Tribune about how athletes felt during a whole season or career, but it's not always a part of the conversation. When we ask athletes, "were you feeling 100%?" after a game where they played poorly, the implicit context is still about their bodies.

There's still plenty of voices who would rather we push down our feelings than feel them or talk about them. And already, people are getting angry that Biles withdrew when she wasn't physically injured.

When you are the undisputed greatest, what do you owe others? Where do you draw the line for yourself? Can we blame her for wanting to try to stay healthy to live a fuller life post-competition? Or if she was already feeling badly, is giving another teammate a chance to shine such a bad thing?

Maybe these OIympics were supposed to be her victory lap or a chance to dazzle us with the moves so dangerous the judges don't want to reward them with points. Biles was certainly a marketing and TV ratings draw. She was the most recognizable athlete on Team USA, with more than 50% of respondents in a poll knowing her, our Political Editor Noah Pransky reports.

And then "Still the GOAT" started trending.

Biles holds the record for most world gymnastics gold medals and medals overall, so she can definitely claim the title "Greatest of All Time." And her embrace of the title was not subtle —she wore an embroidered goat on her uniform at events.

Hopefully we haven't lost all future chances to witness Biles' greatness again. It's too early to say since she could be back to the individual competition in no time. But if something is wrong, we have to think about the risks of longstanding injury and if playing through the pain is worth the price paid after the cameras stop rolling.

You have to take breaks from time to time so the wheels don't fall off and you can keep going.

But if Biles wants to come back and dazzle again, if she's ready, I know a few million people who would be all too happy to watch.