In withdrawing from the U.S. team gymnastics finals at the Tokyo Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles showed courage and leadership, maturity and strength, faith in her teammates and prioritization of herself.
“We have to protect our body and our mind,” the greatest gymnast the world has seen said in explaining her decision, adding that she didn’t want to hurt her teammates’ chances of winning a medal. “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”
But we should also acknowledge that Black women in hypercompetitive, often white-dominated sports deal with issues their teammates and competitors simply aren’t forced to face. The complexities of misogynoir add disparate and unfair demands, scrutiny, criticisms, attacks and penalties they are expected to endure—gratefully and silently.
To pursue their dreams, Black women in sports are constantly having to find ways to maintain their mental health while dealing with the treatment they experience. Because no matter how good they are, it’s never enough.
Consider how the guardians of gymnastics demand perfection and then punish Biles—unquestionably the best gymnast and arguably the greatest athlete of all time—for actually achieving it. When Biles landed the Yurchenko double pike, a move widely recognized as so dangerous and difficult she was the first woman to even attempt it in competition, judges underrated the feat in their scoring, essentially penalizing her for showing unparalleled athletic skill and prowess.
This wasn’t the first time that Biles was punished for greatness. In 2019, when she performed a move that had not been seen in competition for three decades, elevating its complexity by moving it from the floor to the beam, Biles wasn’t just robbed of the deserved score—the International Gymnastics Federation low-key scolded her in a statement declaring their “task is to ensure the safety of all athletes around the world and decisions are not based purely on one gymnast.” In other words, Biles got tacitly blamed for imperiling the safety of other, lesser gymnasts by doing moves they’re likely to hurt themselves even attempting.
The genetic advantages that made Michael Phelps an aquatic anomaly were mostly treated as biological marvels. But even flawlessness in a Black woman is never enough. In fact, their greatness and fitness is often weaponized against them.
Biles was the first to congratulate Russian Olympic Federation gymnasts for the gold medal win they only achieved because of her withdrawal. Back home on state TV, host Olga Skabeeva said that Biles’s passport indicates “she is actually a woman. What this woman has been taking in order to look like this, God only knows… Now look at our gymnasts, they’re one-third her girth and actually look like girls! They also look like people, but Simone looks like devil knows what.”
There are historical parallels to this kind of racist, sexist denigration. Surya Bonaly, the Black ice-skater from France, was punished for her athleticism and—after a executing a practice backflip like the one she performed at the 1998 Olympics—described as a show-off and “the sort of school kid who would pinch the other students or pull their hair” and “like a bull in a china shop.” (“As a Black athlete, I think, we had to do just more than good,” she has said. “My job was to be… impeccable.”) There’s the kind of affronts and masculinization heaped on Serena Williams, and the nonsensical notion that Maria Sharapova’s pile of losses to Williams can be semantically revised to fit the definition of a “rivalry.”
But you don’t really have to look backwards to see the way that sports castigate Black women in ways that simply don’t happen to other competitors. There were the relentless attacks on Naomi Osaka for essentially being too uppity and ungrateful to sacrifice herself to the public’s full satisfaction. The refusal of the international swimming federation to accommodate Black women by adopting a swimming cap that meets the needs of natural hair, even labeling it unnatural, despite the fact that it doesn’t increase the speed of those swimmers’ strokes.
The suspension and public shaming of Sha’Carri Richardson for having THC in her system, even as officials bent over backwards to keep alleged serial sexual abuser Alen Hadzic—who six female fencers requested be banned from the Tokyo games—in competition with a special “safety plan” to keep him away from women he could potentially assault. A slew of African women runners—Beatrice Masilingi, Christine Mboma, Francine Niyonsaba, Margaret Wambui and, most famously, Caster Semenya—have been disqualified from competing because of an unscientific and arbitrarily affixed rule about where testosterone levels and gender intersect.
And Black women athletes who use their influence to push back on the racism and misogynoir they face potentially face sanctions for doing so, as Gwen Berry and Luciana Alvarado can attest.
Biles has been criticized for not smiling enough, and taken hits for being so good that there are four near-impossible gymnastic moves that are named after her. She has literally lost points for having the drive and precision that gets lauded in white dudes, whether they actually have it or not. She has the weight of expectation from millions of little Black girls and the culture on her literal every move, and the heaviness that comes with being a survivor of and speaker on sexual abuse.
The spotlight burns intensely on every highly visible, very talented athlete, but the pressures young Black women are under—especially those who are trailblazers in their sport—is outsized. Biles may seem to perform superhuman feats. But the treatment she and so many Black women athletes receive is too often a denial of their humanity.