The whole world is talking about Simone Biles. Unless you have been living under an Olympic-news-proof rock, you are probably aware that this amazing force of nature is a member of the USA Gymnastics team and has already won FIVE medals at this year’s games in Rio – four Gold, one Bronze. She and her team took the Gold in the Team All-Round, and she was the individual Champion in the Women’s All-Round, the Women’s Vault Final, and the Floor Exercise Final. She also medalled Bronze in the Balance Beam Final. Her routines are phenomenal, gravity-defying feats of strength; her camaraderie and sisterhood with her teammates is glorious; and she is already the most decorated American female gymnast in World Championships history, with 19 medals achieved on the world stage in a combination of Olympic and World Championship success.
Very very impressive. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Simone Biles – and arguably the most important – is not the details of her success, but in her ownership of it.
Many female athletes at the Rio 2016 Olympics have repeatedly had their achievements attributed to and overshadowed by men. Biles was determined to take possession of and own her own success, not have it diluted by sexist commentators and media outlets. You have almost definitely heard by now her iconic quote from last Thursday:
“I am not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. I’m the first Simone Biles”.
The impact alone of this statement is unmissable. BAM. This girl is a champion. She knows it, she owns it. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the most valuable messages that she could have possibly sent out to young girls worldwide. In a world where
women are taught to underplay their own successes for fear of being seen as boastful or power-hungry whilst their male counterparts are praised for being headstrong and powerful, Biles’ unabashed self-acknowledgement of her success and self-assurance that it is her own success to celebrate shines out as a beacon of validation. Girls in the impressionable stages of their development will look to her as an example of a woman who worked hard and got the results she worked hard for – the results she deserved. They will see that it is more than okay to admit that you deserve your successes and that there is no need to be coy and humble about it. What is more glorious than a young girl being able to look at the TV and see this powerful aerodynamic teenager whom they admire owning her victory and revelling in her achievements? Even more importantly, young girls of colour will see themselves represented in international media as strong, powerful and successful, at the top of the world – a stark contrast from the way POC are often represented in mainstream media.
One of my own siblings – the fifth, a sister – is a gymnast. She is 14 years old. She has many medals from competitions and used to be shy of it. She has also been following the Olympic Gymnastic coverage feverishly, excitedly talking with me about all of the results and getting excited over Biles’ extraordinary performances. I asked her to tell me why Simone Biles is so incredible, in her opinion. “She has amazing power and can literally do anything she puts her mind to”, she told me. “Her coach said that she can learn things in three days that other people take years to learn. I admire her. Her execution is so flawless.” This is the kind of impact she has on young girls. I hope that Biles’ strong message can empower my sister and many others like her to stretch further, tumble faster, leap higher, spin sharper.
Simone totally pre-empted the inevitable press comparisons to successful and very specifically and deliberately male athletes and stopped it in its tracks. She refused to be defined by comparison to other people (men). She refused to have her success diffused by and incorrectly tied to male athletes who are not even in her field of sport. And why should she allow herself to be labelled as only as good as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt? Why can’t she be better, or at the very least different? She carves her own path, sets her own standards, puts her own unmistakable mark on the sport and secures her legacy. It is important that she is not ‘the next -insert male athlete’s name here-‘. It is also important that is is not ‘the next -insert any athlete’s name here-‘. She knows that her success is unlike any other, and knows that as a black woman media outlets are not likely to point out the exceptional nature of her achievements of their own accord – for reference, see Andy Murray’s take-down of a sports journalist who completely ignores Serena and Venus Williams’ tennis achievements and instead attempts to claim Murray as the most remarkable Olympic tennis player (also a perfect illustration of using your privilege to call out racist and sexist injustices, in case you were curious). It is a shame that it is necessary for Biles to prompt the world into seeing her powerful gymnastics for what they really are, but in doing so she helps more women than just herself. The subtext of her words can roughly be transcribed as
“Do not arbitrarily compare my specific success to that of male athletes. My success is my own.”
In this simple statement she claims back ownership of success for every one of her fellow female athletes at the games. She uncouples her own hard work from association with men who have no bearing on her success. This Olympic Games has been brimming with amazing, strong, powerful woman athletes breaking boundaries and winning medals and doing great things for women (see Fu Yuanhui telling a reporter about her period). Simone Biles is a force to be reckoned with in the gymnastic world, and I hope that her influence reaches far beyond to inspire and empower across all generations, races and genders.
She is the first Simone Biles; her legacy is her own, and it starts here.