With 25 medals in her trophy case, Simone Biles hasn’t just made a name for herself inside the world of gymnastics, but outside of it as well. It has been decades since gymnastics has produced an athlete with so much “star power.” This has given Simone a larger platform than the gymnasts from previous Olympic quads who have come before her. Simone has not only demonstrated an intent to use her platform to promote important issues, but is doing so in a way that is unprecedented in American gymnastics.
Before Simone Biles came along, American gymnasts who achieved significant amounts of fame would avoid commentary that reflected negatively on the sport. This is the byproduct of USAG establishing a model where the sport was branded only in a ways that wouldn’t scare away parents who were considering enrolling their child into a gymnastics class.
If USAG spent decades encouraging its most high profile gymnasts to not say anything that would reflect poorly on the sport, it was because protecting the financial well being of the organization was USAG’s primary concern. USAG’s financial health wasn’t just tied to the number of Olympic medals it won, but how many parents it could convince to enroll their son or daughter up in gymnastics class. Medals were simply a way to further that goal. National governing bodies who oversee various Olympic sports such as USAG/gymnastics each want the highest participation rates possible.
The more athletes they have in their respective Olympic sport, the greater their coffers become as it means more dues for them to collect. Having a larger number of athletes translates to having more influence with major organizations such as the IOC, USOC, and NBC while also increasing its sponsorship base. In an era where the primary focus of a major sports organization is its financial well being, building a brand based on positive image and targeting families is synonymous with maintaining its key revenue streams.
This concept would eventually engulf the entire culture of the sport. Gymnasts were encouraged to downplay the severity of the injuries they were plagued with while competing in front of the television cameras. Books written by high profile American Olympians avoided taking a scandalous tone. Instead, they were written as motivational works looking to inspire young children. None of this is meant to blame the athletes who abided by this attitude, but rather the culture promoted by USAG that discouraged gymnasts from taking a different tone.
For USAG, the Larry Nassar scandal undermined their goal of maintaining a financially solvent organization. It had presented USAG with two distinctly different financial dilemmas. The first was the unforeseen expenditures the scandal generated in the form of civil liability. The second financial dilemma was the negative press attention which had the potential to lower participation rates and thereby lower the overall value of the organization.
But the key wording here is “had the potential.”
Whereas racking up millions of dollars in legal costs was an absolute certainty, it was completely unknown how parents would respond to the scandal. Would they see Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas in the news coming forward as Nassar-survivors and think “that could have been my child?” Or will they see it as a story limited only to the Olympic team and a single gym in Michigan, and not make the connection that it pertains to an issue involving every gym in America?
This was the public relations battle USAG had been fighting since the Nassar scandal first became public knowledge. Among those coming to USAG’s defense was Mary Lou Retton who in a single interview which can be found here on Twitter, not only downplayed Larry Nassar as a lone example of abusers existing inside the sport, but made a specific appeal to parents.
“I think if you go with a reputable gym you’re gonna be okay.”
That was how Mary Lou Retton responded to a question specifically asking if parents should have second thoughts about enrolling their child in gymnastics class in the wake of the Nassar scandal. Retton was even asked if she would trust having her own (hypothetical) young daughter enrolled in the sport. It was a significant statement to make as Mary Lou Retton is one of the most high profile figures in the gymnastics community. Prior to the 2000s, Mary Lou Retton was the best known American figure in the entire sport, and the person with the most influential voice.
But in the last two decades Simone Biles has usurped Mary Lou Retton for the title. And when asked virtually the exact same question in February 2021 that Mary Lou Retton had been asked two years earlier, Simone said the following:
“No. Because I don’t feel comfortable enough, because they haven’t taken accountability for their actions and what they’ve done. And they haven’t ensured us that it’s never going to happen again.”
That was how Simone Biles responded to the question of whether she would put her daughter in gymnastics. While gymnastics fans were fawning over the new vault 60 Minutes revealed in Simone’s training footage, Simone Biles had stuck a dagger right through USAG’s heart. To lose the confidence of your most high profile/visible star, and then have her go on the record stating she wouldn’t trust you with her own child is one of the worst things that can happen to a national governing body.
What Simone had done was pivot the conversation from what the Nassar scandal might imply, to directly saying it. Parents all across the country who were watching that 60 Minutes interview didn’t have to form their own conclusions regarding the safety of the sport, Simone told them what that conclusion ought to be. This wasn’t just another public relations nightmare for USAG, but a comment that had been pointed at the one place that hurt most. Simone had made a comment which specifically undermined USAG’s revenue streams.
Major media outlets were quick to recognize the significance of Simone’s commentary. The following Twitter accounts not only published feature pieces on Simone Biles, but had specifically tweeted it with the word “daughter” in their tweets. As each of them saw it, an athlete willing to say they wouldn’t trust their own child to participate in their respective sport was unprecedented and equally newsworthy.
The Daily Beast: 1.3 Million Followers
Sky News: 6.9 Million Followers
The Times: 1.5 Million Followers
BBC Sport: 8.9 Million Followers
The Guardian: 9.5 Million Followers
InStyle: 4.3 Million Followers
60 Minutes: 1.1 Million Followers
The Tweets can be found embedded at the bottom of this article. And they reflect just how powerful and impactful the voice of Simone Biles has become. What Simone has accomplished inside the gym has been monumental, but there is far more to her than what she has done while wearing a leotard. Equally as impressive as Simone’s athletic talent is her strong mental fortitude. Simone is incredibly well spoken and has made it a habit of taking complex thoughts, and breaking them down into easy to understand statements. Stating her beliefs with such poise, confidence, and in such easy to understand sentences that they quickly gain traction on both social media and mainstream media.
Only a few days after her 60 Minutes segment was released, Simone found herself once again in the national news. ESPN’s Sports Center isn’t just the most iconic sports show in American television history, but has immortalized itself as one of the best known brands in all of television. Its Twitter account includes 37.5 million followers and the following Tweet provoked controversy.
The artwork was a tribute to the “GOATs” of every major sport, but just about every single athlete in it was male. There technically was a lone woman in the picture as Serena Williams was in the background. But her image was so obscure, most commentators had missed the inclusion of the famed tennis player. The tweet had generated significant controversy over its omission of women from the moment it had been tweeted out, but SportsCenter initially resisted taking it down despite the obvious controversy. But then Simone Biles got involved and made the following statement in a tweet:
“There are so many women I can think of that belong in this photo yet there are none”
As Sports Center debated whether to take the tweet down or leave it up, Simone Biles made that decision for them. When one of the most high profile female athletes in the world publicly commented on it, Sports Center realized they had no choice but to capitulate and admit the error by removing the Tweet. The incident was quickly dubbed “GOAT-Gate” and the next morning, it had made national news on the TODAY show, with Simone Biles being credited as the person most responsible for getting the tweet taken down. The clip can be found here on Twitter.
What I love about this particular incident is that even though Simone herself was snubbed, and probably feeling hurt and discriminated against that her accomplishments weren’t deemed worthy of mention due to her gender, that wasn’t how Biles approached this tweet. But rather, Simone made commentary intended to prop up the accomplishments of other women rather than advocating on her own behalf. Simone wasn’t promoting herself when she responded to the Sports Center tweet, she was promoting female representation as a whole.
Then for the third time in less than a week Simone utilized her voice for a good cause. Realizing that she is a high profile celebrity based out of Texas, Simone used her Twitter account to help distribute information regarding relief efforts that were available to those impacted by the recent weather events and poor infrastructure planning that had combined to wreck havoc on Texas. When Simone Biles saw gymnasts in danger due to an abusive training environment created by USAG, she used her voice to try to protect her fellow gymnasts. When Simone saw her community in desperate need as it struggled to cope with a disaster, she worked to protect it.
Simone has come to realize the power of her voice, and uses it to promote amazing causes. To speak up on behalf of others because Simone knows she is one of the lucky few who has a large platform. Simone can bring attention to an issue in a way that most can not. Simone does it while being intelligent and articulate because she has a mind as sound and strong as the athletic talent that can be found in the rest of her body. Between a remarkable mind and a strong body filled with athleticism, Simone has used both to build a massive platform for herself. She has then used it to effectively promote any issue she chooses to advocate on behalf of. Simone does it while possessing the greatest trait of all.
Before Simone Biles, the leaders of the sport either didn’t have the ability to openly criticize USAG without fear of retribution, or had the ability but not the integrity to do exactly that. Simone helped end an era of silence, and now she is working to end an era of abuse. Simone isn’t just one of the best gymnasts the sport has ever had, she is one of the best leaders it has ever had.