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In an America of ‘suicide shifts’ and toxic work culture, Simone Biles speaks for all of us | Will Bunch

The stunning withdrawal of America's top athlete at the Tokyo Games defines a national battle over mental health and the meaning of work.

Simone Biles of Team United States looks on during Women's Qualification on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Simone Biles of Team United States looks on during Women's Qualification on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Sunday, July 25, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.Read moreLaurence Griffiths / MCT

There has never been a more fraught time to be mid-air than 2021. I’m thinking, of course, about what aviation officials are calling an “off the charts,” roughly seven-fold increase in so-called “air rage” incidents on U.S. airliners during a post-pandemic traveling surge. These events have ranged from the obnoxious — party-bound teens refusing to wear masks — to the utterly unhinged, as the woman who was duct-taped to her seat after trying to open the main door at cruising altitude aboard an American Airlines flight.

But now I’m also thinking about America’s top athlete, the gymnast Simone Biles, who was soaring through the air after vaulting at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo when she suffered what those in her field call “the twisties,” the sporting equivalent of a debilitating panic attack, mid-flight. Biles, who won four gold medals in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, withdrew from the U.S. women’s team that ultimately captured silver that night, and took herself out of the all-around individual event, citing her fragile state of mind.

Whatever plagued Biles during her failed vault, the 24-year-old was fearless in facing the press and speaking so candidly about “fighting all of those demons” that led her to conclude it was best for her American teammates to scratch herself from the competition. While part of her wanted to go on, Biles told reporters she “felt like I was still doing it for other people...So that just, like, hurts my heart, because doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

It’s easy to imagine a past Olympics where Biles’ struggles would have been a big news story, of course — she’s been the stuff of cereal boxes for the last five years, a national hero — yet also seen as an individual crisis and not something that spoke to the American zeitgeist. Not so in 2021, that (not yet) post-pandemic and (not yet) post-Trump moment when the nation seems locked in moral struggle over who we are and what values we represent.

Biles’ mid-air misadventures were the two seconds that launched 1,000 internet “hot takes” (yes, I know, including this one) about its deeper meaning. Of course people fell largely into two sharply divided and at least quasi-politicized camps. To many in the sports world — competitors and also journalists — but also in the broader culture of Millennial and Gen Z fans to whom the Texas-raised Biles is a cultural icon, the gymnast took a heroic stand for her own mental health and long-term well-being as the most important thing in life, worth more than its weight in Olympic gold. She joins other athletes of her generation — most notably the tennis champion Naomi Osaka — in making personal statements and choices once unthinkable.

But to the predictable army of armchair athletes on the political right, Biles not soldiering in on Tokyo was the ultimate symbol of the “snowflake” fragility of today’s woke youth — meaning that presumably we’d all be speaking German if today’s 20-somethings had been tasked with D-Day. Charlie Kirk, the extremist provocateur, said — ridiculously — “we are raising a generation of weak people like Simone Biles,” whom he called “a selfish sociopath.” That sounds like projection from Kirk, who could never come within 12 time zones of either the hard work that took Biles from foster care to Olympic champion, or her courage in leading the U.S. gymnastics team to a world championship in 2018 while suffering from painful kidney stones.

But I think there’s an even broader, and more important, collective moment that we’re acting out through the prism of Biles’ emotional travails in Japan. After an unfathomable 16 months of lockdown, prolonged social isolation, rampant unemployment and workplace upheavals, and a never-ending political crisis that at times has veered into the existential, America as a whole is having something of a mental health meltdown.

You see it in so many facets of life right now. Much of it — while less applicable to the Biles situation — is playing out in unhealthy and even violent ways. The rise in unruly or unstable air travelers that I mentioned at the top of this column is of a piece with similar spikes in road-rage shootings and altercations on our highways, in obnoxious fans throwing things or starting stupid fights in our sports arenas, in our restaurant servers in a state of siege from customers who’ve forgotten how to act in public. It’s quite “a tell” that economic crimes are largely flat but murder rates are skyrocketing in America’s cities like Philadelphia, partly from young people who respond to petty beefs by firing weapons into a crowd.

“The pandemic has produced a petri dish of psychological factors that may lead to emotional health problems: anxiety, brain fog, depression, and PTSD,” Luana Marques, a psychologist and professor at Harvard Medical School, told National Geographic in a recent article headlined: “Why ‘getting back to normal’ may actually feel terrifying.” The article notes that both global and U.S.-based surveys of happiness and mental health have shown unprecedented downward spikes amid the COVID-19 crisis, in ways that have yet to fully play out.

Surely “getting back to normal” has been particularly stressful for Olympic athletes like Biles or Osaka, who saw a year’s delay disrupt their training routines before traveling halfway across the world’s time zones to compete in empty stadiums, amid strict coronavirus rules and restrictions. But their problems are also emblematic of what’s become the key post-pandemic battleground for figuring out happiness or even the meaning of life — which is the workplace. The rat race of getting ahead in late-stage capitalism — the sacrifices and often indignities demanded not only to win a gold medal but also to get promoted to assistant manager at Wendy’s or whatever, all in the name of an often rigged “meritocracy” — is getting a long-overdue reevaluation.

» READ MORE: ‘Disaster socialism’: Will coronavirus crisis finally change how Americans see the safety net? | Will Bunch

Is it any wonder that Frito-Lay factory workers who for years have been forced to work “suicide shifts” of 12-hours-seven-days-a-week finally walked off the job in disgust, as part of a bigger (and under-reported) national strike wave, or that hot, hectic and unsafe conditions caused the staff at a Nebraska Burger King to post “WE ALL QUIT,” or that thousands of harried restaurant workers are suddenly in no big hurry to return to their old jobs? This same week as the Olympics controversy, America has been riveted by the sometimes tearful congressional testimony of burly Capitol Police or D.C. officers, wondering where was the emotional support after they were attacked on the job on January 6? Simply put, aren’t we all Simone Biles right now, questioning everything?

Biles, after all, is both product and victim of arguably the highest-profile toxic workplace in America — one of 150 top athletes who were sexually abused for years by vile team physician Larry Nassar, a situation so horrific that Biles has admitted to occasional suicidal thoughts. The Nassar scandal took place within a broader culture of abuse in which male coaches placed grueling and often inhumane physical demands on young, impressionable athletes. Yet only now are Americans questioning whether Kerri Strug’s team-medal winning vault in the 1996 Games was an epic moment of athletic courage, or televised cruelty.

The conservative couch commandos who’ve been attacking Biles couldn’t seem to care less about the U.S. medal count in Tokyo or America’s prestige in the world (which has risen sharply since their hero left the White House) or, for that matter, the police officers who risked their lives fighting off Trump’s insurrection. What is happening, I would argue, is what you might call an immoral panic among the defenders of our vilest forms of capitalism, that Americans are waking up to the idea that there are other ways to live and even flourish outside of a dog-eat-dog workforce that robs humans of their dignity and can even threaten their lives, whether through an 84-hour workweek or “the twisties” on a gymnastics vault. They are terrified that if an international role model like Biles can walk away from the monster they’ve created, what’s to stop the rest of us?

This is not a completely new concern. In 1964, in one of the greatest populist speeches of modern times, Berkeley activist Mario Savio took issue with the notion that students were becoming mere cogs within universities running more like factories than citadels of learning. “There’s a time,” he thundered, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can’t take part!...And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus — and you’ve got to make it stop!”

This week Simone Biles threw her body against that apparatus — which for her was a vault in an eerily empty Olympic arena. Years from now, we will look at her brave stand as a defining moment of a pivotal time for human civilization, a quest to find new forms of happiness outside of a system so oppressive that it has given most of us “the twisties.” The big question now for humanity is, how can we stick the landing?