They have walked – no, sorry, flown – where the rest of us never will: Simone Biles above a balance beam or set of gymnastics bars, Michael Jordan over a hardwood basketball court. We cannot imagine what it is to be them. We can fantasize, sure, but there is no way to comprehend the price paid to become or remain the greatest.
For Muhammad Ali, it was a character he created and played. Was he the best heavyweight fighter of all time? It didn’t matter. Ali’s insistent self-aggrandizement was part of the show, along with the poetry and the bolo punches and the dazzling footwork.
For Biles, though, it is real. And, because of her sport, it is unique. Jordan missed 14,654 shots in his NBA career, but he was proclaimed to be the greatest in his sport because of the 14,380 he made. Perfection was not any part of his job description, only dominance. Jordan played 48,484 minutes wearing an NBA uniform in competitive games, which amounts to more than 808 hours. A vault attempt in gymnastics lasts less than 6 seconds. A small stumble upon landing, a tiny separation of her feet as she flies, and her score declines. If Biles fails, it’s a four-year wait for another Olympics, or it’s over for good.
Jordan may know that pressure in a single instance, like at the end of Game 6 in the 1998 NBA Finals, with a gentle push to throw Bryon Russell off track and then a step-back jumper to secure a sixth championship ring. Even at that, there is the knowledge, somewhere in Jordan’s brain, that Game 7 beckons if the shot rims out.
When one seeks to find a comparison, flattering or otherwise, for what occurred with Biles on Tuesday evening in Tokyo, this is the first and only place to look.
It is not to Kerri Strug, who competed with an injured ankle to land a vault that helped the United States to complete its team gold medal performance in 1996. Strug never was in Biles’ singular position in terms of talent or expectation.
It is not to hypotheticals involving famous athletes from other sports and how the world might react if they stepped away, wearing no visible injury, from a major sporting event. There is no justice in such an exercise, only judgment.
Biles, for reasons only she truly knows and only partially attempted to explain, removed herself from the Olympic women’s gymnastics team competition after she attempted a vault and delivered a performance leagues below her standard. Jordan, for reasons only he knows and only partially has attempted to explain, twice walked away from the sport that made him an icon when he still had encountered no peer.
“It’s like fighting all those demons and coming out here – I have to put my pride aside. I have to do it for the team,” Biles told reporters after the competition ended. “And then, at the end of the day, it’s like: You know what? I have to do what is right for me and focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being.”
Where those demons originated is Biles’ story to tell, or not. She alluded to the pressure of attempting to reach her customary level in an Instagram post after a substandard performance in the team qualifying event Sunday, when she stumbled on multiple dismounts and tumbling runs, once entirely departing the floor exercise surface.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times,” Biles wrote.
When Jordan announced his first retirement, it was not long after his beloved father was murdered by thieves, and it was believed the grief impaired his desire to continue playing professional basketball. In a similar way, we cannot understand, without being invited in, how the lingering impact of Biles’ status as a victim of sexual abuse from former USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar might be impacting her current performance.
She spoke bravely in advance of the Games about initially pondering retirement before reconsidering so a known survivor of Nassar’s crimes would be a part of the team, a reminder to the U.S. federation that it must do more to protect the young women and men under its charge. So it remains possible this stands among the barriers to her customary achievement in the gym.
“I was still struggling with some things,” Biles said Tuesday. “Therapy has helped a lot, as well as medicine. That’s all been going really well.
“Whenever you get in high-stress situations, you kind of freak out and don’t really know how to handle all of those emotions – especially at the Olympic Games.”
It is possible she will return to compete in the individual All-Around competition and the apparatus finals, in which she qualified for all four despite her Sunday struggles. We can hope for that. We can embrace it if it arrives. We should not what-about Biles if that is what she chooses. Only she truly understands all that goes into being the greatest ever in a sport that has been around since the Olympic Games were introduced, more than a century before she was born.
All of us who’ve watched Biles perform wondered before how she makes it look so easy. We’ve been reminded at these Olympics it most assuredly is not, in any way.