The Golden Standard

The commodification of elite athletes paints a concerning image for the future of sports.


Sports Illustrated

With a total of 32 combined Olympic and World medals, Simone Biles is tied for the most decorated gymnast of all time.

Bright lights. Roaring crowds of thousands. Glittering trophies, coveted medals, fame and fortune.

On the surface, the life of a star athlete gleams as much as the accolades that come with it. But all that glitters is not gold — underneath the flashy surface, the reality of that life is much darker. 

Of course, everyone understands that the benefits athletes earn are justified by the bodily demands. And we’ve all heard the stories of physical abuse at the hands of coaches and parents that constantly push competitors beyond their limits. However, elite athletes face another form of abuse that is often overlooked, and one from a seemingly unlikely source: fans. 

Take, for example, the highly anticipated final of the 2021 UEFA European Football (Soccer) Championship, where England faced Italy for a chance to win the country’s first-ever UEFA title. In the closing stages of the nail-biting match, England fell to the victorious Italians in the penalty shootout (3-2).

Following the devastating loss, torrents of racist abuse rained down upon Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford, and Bukayo Saka, all Black players, who had missed penalty shots. The sheer vitriol and bigotry were so potent that even Prince William had to publicly condemn the messages. 

Bukayo Saka missed the winning penalty kick in the 2021 Euro Final and received verbal abuse from fans. The Athletic

The most recent reminder of this mindset arrived on the biggest stage, under the brightest lights — the Olympic games. On Tuesday, July 27, as the world’s eyes watched Tokyo, they were primarily trained on one woman: Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast of all time and the widely accepted GOAT of women’s gymnastics. Biles had been a star in the gymnastics world as early as 2013, but it was her performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning four gold and one bronze medals, that catapulted her to stardom and a household name. 

Biles entered her second Olympics with more pressure than ever before, leading the US women in the team final to vie for what was perceived as a near-guaranteed gold medal. As she stepped up to the vault, the unthinkable happened. Instead of performing her intended “Amanar” (two and a half twists), Biles only managed one and a half and stumbled on the landing. NBC Commentator Nastia Liukin stated that it looked like Biles was “lost in the air.”

The minutes following the shocking development were marked with confusion and anticipation. Viewers watched as Biles conversed with her teammates, and the sinking realization slowly set in that she would not be competing for the rest of the final. The remaining members of the US Women’s team fought hard and earned the silver medal, with Russia taking the gold for the first time in 28 years. 

In the days following the shocking upset, Biles proceeded to withdraw from the all-around, floor, vault, and bars finals that she had qualified for, stating that she was not in the right mental state to compete. Simone Biles was suffering from a mental block dealing with the loss of proprioception (awareness of one’s body in the air), colloquially referred to as “the twisties.” The deceptively silly-sounding condition is a known plight in the gymnastics world and can be extremely dangerous when combined with the gravity-defying moves that gymnasts perform on a daily basis.

While Biles received widespread support from her teammates, fellow competitors, former gymnasts, other Olympians, and gymnastics experts, the backlash from the general population was significant and immediate.

Seemingly overnight, the country that had heralded Biles as a national hero rushed to social media to label her a “quitter,” “unpatriotic,” and “weak.” Conspiracy theories soon began circulating that Biles was experiencing withdrawal symptoms from her ADHD medication or that she “knew she wouldn’t win gold so she quit” — claims that were completely unsubstantiated.  

Many conservative pundits, in particular, took issue with Biles’s decision. Charlie Kirk went as far as to call her a “selfish sociopath.” Ben Shapiro claimed there was a double standard, saying, “If Lebron James was in game seven of the NBA final and… said ‘I’m out, people would say… that’s a massive choke. Male athletes aren’t treated this way.”

The problem with this analysis is twofold. First, the risks and dangers from competing in a sport like basketball while not mentally sound are not comparable to those of elite gymnastics. As Deanna Hong put it, “Imagine being driven into the ground directly onto your head from ten feet in the air, with the force of 15 times your body weight. Those are the stakes here.” 

Second, if Lebron James determined that his mental headspace prevented him from safely competing in a way that was not at the detriment of his team and withdrew from the game, he would be correct — and the only ones bashing him would likely be the same armchair experts criticizing Biles.

Others pointed to Kerri Strug, who vaulted at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with an injured ankle. However, this comparison as a way to discredit Biles was rather ironic, seeing as none other than Strug herself tweeted out support for her fellow gymnast.

Furthermore, it was also a dangerous mischaracterization of the dark side of gymnastics as a triumphant and heroic moment. Strug was essentially pressured into vaulting by her coaches, the infamous Karolyis, who has since been at the forefront of multiple allegations of abusive tactics. After that vault (which ended up unnecessary for the gold), she never competed again.

Painting coercion by abusive coaches who put victory above their athlete’s wellbeing as a shining example only feeds into the constant dehumanization of those that compete at the highest level.  

Why are fans, who by definition are supposed to provide love and support, so quick to turn on those they were previously cheering for? And why is one’s treatment of a fellow human being conditional on the presence of a medal around their neck?

The subtext is clear: “We feel entitled to a gold medal, and we care more about winning that than your health or wellbeing.” 

Why are fans, who by definition are supposed to provide love and support, so quick to turn on those they were previously cheering for?”

There are several psychological explanations for this type of behavior from fans. Subconsciously, fans not only support athletes because they like them, but also because they gain a sense of vicarious validation through their idols when they do well. The actual achievement has little to do with the fans, but there is a strange pride attached to being associated with someone who has done great things. That connection may form through being their longtime supporter or heralding from the same country as them.

The problem with this is that it reduces athletes from actual people to merely an agent of fan gratification; it commodifies them into an image that can be bought and sold to masses of admiring supporters. However, this image only works as long as the athlete wins. When they don’t, they lose not only the competition but also their inherent value in the eyes of the population.

The idea that the woman who won a national championship with a broken toe, won the world championship with kidney stones, performed on tour with a broken rib, and endured borderline inhumane training tactics, not to mention sexual abuse at the hands of her team doctor and failure by the organization responsible for protecting her, could ever be labeled as “weak” shows the concerning disconnect between athletes’ realities and viewers’ perceptions.

But Simone Biles’s brave and selfless decision to put her wellbeing and the team’s chances at a medal ahead of her personal desires for victory, as well as the other athletes’ enduring fortitude in the midst of harassment and verbal abuse, has hopefully set the stage for a new era of elite sports — one where athletes are not forced to barter safety for success, or mental health for medals.