United States gymnast Simone Biles competes in the floor exercise during an all-around final at the Artistic Gymnastics World Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, Friday, Oct. 4, 2013.
( AP Photo/Yves Logghe
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and it's good to have you with us. After Simone Biles first announced she would not compete in the team finals, The Takeaway reached out to Former USA Gymnast for their reaction. Although she was unable to join us on AR, 1996 team gold medalist Dominique Moceanu sent us a statement regarding Biles decision. It reads in part "Competing at such an elite world-class level can take a toll on the mind and body."
It's sometimes easy for people to forget that even a GOAT athlete, like Simone Biles, is still a human being. GOAT, of course, means Greatest of All Time. After Biles decided also to step back from the individual all-around competition, Moceanu tweeted this, "I was 14 years old with a tibial stress fracture left alone with no cervical spine exam after this fall. I competed in the Olympic floor final minutes later."
Simone Biles's decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health, a say I never felt I had as an Olympian. Talking with me now is someone who's familiar with the pressure placed on young women in sports to succeed, Chloe Angyal, a contributing editor at marieclaire.com and author of TURNING POINTE: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself. Chloe, it is so lovely to have you with us.
Chloe Angyal: I'm so thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, you were a fairly serious gymnast yourself. What are some of the things that you saw firsthand and some of the fears you had?
Chloe Angyal: One of the reasons why gymnastics is a sport that is so popular among young women, young girls, young people, in general, is that a lot of us didn't really understand concepts like physics and paralysis, a lot of us really didn't understand just how dangerous the things we were doing were and could be. One of the things I found as I got older, and older by gymnastic standards means 12 or 13, is that we were really risking head in neck injury every time we competed, every time we practiced.
When something's not right in your mind, when you aren't sure that you really have what it takes as you take off to land it safely, to complete it safely, it can be devastating. I do want to say just because there isn't a risk of catastrophic injury doesn't mean you shouldn't feel free to take a day off. [unintelligible 00:02:23] not have to rise to that level in order for a gymnast of any level, including the Greatest of All Time to say, "I'm not in the right headspace for this, and I have to take risks in front of the entire world because that's what's expected of me."
Melissa Harris-Perry: I kept thinking about this language of the twisties, or as Dominique Dawes called it balking, is that an experience that you ever had?
Chloe Angyal: Yes, it is one of the scariest experiences I've ever had, and 20 years later, I still have nightmares about it. Balking is one of the most dangerous things you can do in gymnastics, apart from all of the other dangerous things you can do. [chuckles] All of the other dangerous things are intentional. Balking is when your brain sabotages, you halfway through a skill when you're in the air.
I saw teammates break their elbows balking. I saw teammates land on their heads and necks from balking. Gymnastics is all about controlling your body in space. What happens when you balk or you get the twisties is your brain just stops cooperating halfway through that space, and it's absolutely terrifying.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It occurs to me that as you've talked about aesthetic athletic, in other words not only do we want to see these gymnasts complete these extraordinary feats, we also want to see them do it and look like they're having a fun and have them smile, have them make us feel good about watching it. It feels a lot like ballet in that way. I've recently read your new book around ballet and the risks and the ways that people push through pain. Is this in part unique to young women and our expectations not only that they do this, but that they do it and look feminine, cute, adorable and happy?
Chloe Angyal: Oh, they relieve us as spectators of any discomfort that we might feel when we think about the toll that this takes on their bodies, on their minds, on their lives outside of the gym. Sports are supposedly about the triumph of the human spirit, but only in the service of winning, not in the service of, as in the case of Simone Biles, protecting that human spirit.
What that really means is that people expect sports to be about, or in the case of other aesthetic athletics like ballet, doing whatever it takes to win, doing whatever it takes to be the best, even if that means breaking yourself, breaking your human spirit, breaking your ankles. In Simone's case, multiple tolls, she's competing on multiple fraction tolls right now.
I think this is a moment for people who care about sports to ask themselves what it is they value and why. If the answer is I value the people who do it because they're people, even if that means sometimes I don't get to watch my version of the triumph of the human spirit pushing through adversity no matter what, that should feel like a bit of a wake-up call.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is it uniquely American to say, "Sacrifice it all, even your actual physical self, even your mental health, even maybe your life to pursue your dream?"
Chloe Angyal: I don't know if it's uniquely American, but it does feel like it is embedded in the American psyche. This idea that the dream is sacred and anything you sacrifice in service of that dream is acceptable, valid, inspirational, even. I see a lots of people comparing [unintelligible 00:05:59] and her decision after that vault to Kerri Strug's supposed decision to do his second vault in the Atlanta Games on Dominique Dawes on her team. A lot of people look back at that moment in 1996 as an inspiring moment, as one that captured the spirit of the games. That worries me.
The idea that you should sacrifice your chance of competing in college, which Karie Strug did, your chance of ever practicing your sport ever again for a gold medal on behalf of your country, that leaves a very, very sour taste in my mouth. I don't know if it is uniquely American, but I think it is so embedded in the American way of looking at competition and achievement of one's dream. It's very difficult for some American spectators to understand why what Simone Biles did was the right thing to do.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Chloe Angyal is contributing editor at marieclaire.com and author of TURNING POINTE: How a New Generation of Dancers Is Saving Ballet From Itself. Chloe, thank you for joining us.
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