The world's greatest gymnast chose chaos over order this week
We watch the Olympics to see heroes at their flawless finest, don’t we? We want to see athletes pushed to the very edge of the human spirit, and triumph.
Competing gymnasts “put themselves right on the edge of chaos” explained Jordan Peterson once, when they perform “everyone in the room is so tense you could hear a pin drop”. The routine finishes. There is the triumphant gesture as everybody rises; they clap like mad — it grabs you right in the core of your being.” It’s an act of worship, concludes Peterson, “you saw someone go beyond their perfection into the domain of chaos and establish order, right in front of your eyes. You’re so thrilled about it that you’re happy to be alive.”
Simone Biles, considered by some to be the greatest gymnast of all time, has in one swoop tarnished this long and proud Olympic spirit. By quitting the Tokyo Olympics, she cast a shadow over the entire premise of the games.
Biles did not quit in tears following an unforeseen injury, or due to exhaustion after giving it her all — she quit because as she told the press: “I have to focus on my mental health.”
Biles left her team mates in the lurch, at one of the most pivotal moments of their lives, and let countless adoring fans down because as she put it “I wanted to take a step back, work on my mindfulness.”
The bottom line is, Biles lacked the resilience needed to face hardship head on, and failed to find the strength needed to overcome difficulty. Others, of course, saw it differently. “I believe Biles’s decision to forgo her chance at another medal in Tokyo” wrote Casey Gerald in the Guardian, “will stand as her greatest achievement of all.”
Gerald linked Biles choice to leave the games to the long struggle of black Americans to free themselves from slavery, and later to claim their civil rights. These are high rhetorical stakes. What bearing this history has on Biles can only be guessed at.
To me, it seems more likely that this is a case of self-centredness. Biles’ case is representative. We are witnessing a societal shift towards inwardness, what the novelist J.G. Ballard called “inner space” and Jordan Peterson describes as the “over-protection of the young.” Ballard was describing the rise of the expressive individual, who relied on therapies, pharmaceuticals, shopping, technology, and pornography rather than family, faith, and political organisation to deal with their problems.
In his work, Peterson details the way parents and educators shield children from hardship and difficulty, robbing them of the opportunity to build resilience. In Biles both of these themes, which are essentially modern, are symbolised — far more than the historic struggles of black Americans.
What is left — and this is now deemed unfair and even cruel to say — is weakness and narcissism. Empathy takes a backseat; Biles had little of that for her team mates, who pulled themselves together to collect silver medals.