DANIEL VAUGHAN: Biles’ withdrawal should force Congress to take hard look at US Gymnastics

Does the U.S. Women’s Gymnastics team hate its athletes? I feel like we have to ask this question right now after it entirely disregarded what happened to Simone Biles at the Olympics.

This is, after all, the same organization that hid the Larry Nassar investigation from Simone Biles, one of many women sexually abused by Nassar over multiple decades.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Simone Biles, perhaps the most well-known and accomplished U.S. gymnast of her generation, withdrew from the Olympics this past week. It’s one of those startling events that no one expected, especially as Biles had thoroughly dominated the competition on the world stage leading up to the Olympics and its qualifiers.

After she withdrew, USA Gymnastics issued a statement that, according to ABC News, said Biles had pulled out of the Tokyo Olympics after :further medical evaluation…to focus on her mental health.”

The mental health line raised eyebrows across the sports world because it was out of left-field, since early reports indicated a medical issue with Biles. But it turns out that the “mental health” line was from Biles’ coaches and the USA Gymnastics organization — and wasn’t true.

Biles said she was suffering from what gymnasts call “the twisties.” It’s a cute-sounding word, but is quite serious. One former gymnast said: “It can present itself in various ways, but the two most common are a loss of air sense while you are in the middle of a skill – a sensation not unlike vertigo – or the impulse to twist in the middle of a flipping skill.”

You can see it in the video yourself. NBC’s Olympics coverage offered a slowed-down version. While twisting in the air, Biles clearly loses her ability to track where the ground is during her maneuver. Due to her superior athleticism, she landed safely on her feet, but any lesser person would have experienced a severe injury. A sensation like that can lead to a person landing in a wrong position, like their head or neck, leading to severe injuries.

The Washington Post explained: “When gymnasts have the ‘twisties,’ they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”

This isn’t the first time Simone Biles has suffered from these issues, either. She describes dealing with it in 2019 and 2020. The twisties and related phenomena are mental issues, no doubt. But the coach and the U.S. gymnastics organization pitched it in terms of the all-popular “mental health” issues of the moment when Biles was fighting off older issues that put her at significant risk of injury.

There are two paths you could take with this kind of story. You could look at this moment and question the overwhelming focus on nebulous concepts like “mental health,” and wonder if that’s getting overblown. There’s probably something to that if you tease it out enough.

I have a simpler question I’d like answered, and that I started this piece with: Does the United States care about its women’s gymnastics team? Because the evidence on that front is scant at the moment. The USA has quite possibly the preeminent women’s gymnastics organization globally, consistently cranking out medals and champions. But it seems like it’s an organization that views these women, often young children, as means to an end and not people.

The Nassar investigation is only part of this. One hundred fifty women reported that Nassar abused them while working for decades for Team USA. But the sexual abuse was only part of it.

You may recall the iconic American moment where Kerri Strug stuck the landing in 1996, helping Team USA with the gold. Larry Nassar was the one holding Strug. And investigative reporting has since revealed that the U.S. team was just as abusive toward its athletes in physical and emotional ways going back decades.

As an institution, the U.S. Gymnastics group has never put its athletes or their health and safety first. Those are things seen as disposable and worthy of abuse. And I’m not talking hard work or long hours; any athlete knows that. I’m talking disorders, injuries, and abuse of both sexual and mental nature. On that note: Simone Biles was one of the Nassar victims.

So here we return to Biles stepping down. She very clearly suffered a moment of aerial disorientation and miraculously landed on her feet, avoiding serious injury. Suppose she had, in fact, seriously injured herself. In that case, we’d be asking more challenging questions of that gymnastics group and what it was doing to some of our country’s representatives before the world. Biles’ great athleticism shouldn’t stop us from asking those hard questions.

Has the U.S. Gymnastics organization truly reformed? Or are they hoping the Larry Nassar episode helps them hide more issues? Either way, these Olympics should cause Congress to step in and force those questions to get answered. These are Americans representing the country, and they deserve the best we have to offer. They haven’t gotten that for decades.

We should look harder at changing this and Congress plays a role in that.

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