Piers Morgan and Simone Biles: Why Biles’ bronze is her greatest achievement
Nick Powell discusses the mental strain of being an athlete amidst media speculation.
Upon beginning writing this article, I believed Piers Morgan was not opinionated.
No doubt this is a take that will leave many looking dumbfounded at the screen but I believed that to be opinionated, you had to have your own opinions, and I don’t believe Morgan has his own opinions. Whatever the news story, where there is controversy, Morgan will always take the prevailing view of the UK public, and subsequently die on a hill to defend it.
Though he dealt a serious blow to his US career – which subsequently died itself – when criticising the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) in a rare show of a genuine opinion, he has never done the same in the UK. Some might point to his intense assault on Meghan Markle as evidence to the contrary, which led to his sacking from Good Morning Britain, but Morgan knew he had the British public on side (52 per cent of Britons view Markle unfavourably compared to just 29 per cent favourably) and Morgan will surely find employment soon after a summer off.
The only thing that can link Morgan’s opinions is the majority view of the public. Despite his attacks on Markle, and complete dismissal of non-binary identification, he is not by any means right wing. He formerly edited the left wing Daily Mirror and backed the strictest possible restrictions on social distancing to protect the NHS (consistently supported by more than two thirds of the British public).
Perhaps my strongest evidence for this would be the way two of his opinions have swung dramatically with the public mood. In 2014 and 2015, where the vast majority of the public preferred the term “All Lives Matter” to Black Lives Matter, Morgan supported the former. Jump to now, with the public accepting and understanding the latter better, and Morgan was quick to condemn those that booed England’s footballers taking the knee ahead of and during the Euros. Furthermore, having backed “Remain” during the EU Referendum – when it was polling a narrow lead – he switched to Leave after Britain’s vote to depart the EU, repeatedly labelling anyone who wanted another poll or disagreed with the result with that churlish and infantile term “Remoaners”.
However, I was wrong in my assertion that Morgan is not opinionated. According to a Miriam Webster dictionary definition, opinionated means: ‘firmly or unduly adhering to one’s own opinion or to preconceived notions’.
Morgan accused Biles in brutal terms: “you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country”.
It is preconceived notions that inform many of Morgan’s opinions, and his comments on Simone Biles were no different. Addressing the American gymnast directly in the title of his Daily Mail column, Morgan accused Biles in brutal terms: “you let down your team-mates, your fans and your country”.
Admittedly, a small part of me considered what Morgan had to say in the first half of the article. Biles has always had a remarkable self-confidence that many all-time great athletes have, and Morgan illustrated this well in the first half of the piece. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but think, was Biles being diva-ish? Not being a team player, in saving herself for the five individual events she had lined up?
However, watching what happened, a larger part of me felt something was badly wrong. From the moment Biles wobbled upon landing the vault, you could tell she was done. Her facial expressions indicated her mind was already made, she was not coming back, and this problem was not going to go away quickly.
After a string of reactions to out of context quotes and meaningless insight from Morgan’s analysis of gymnastics in the second half of his article, I promptly dismissed his notion. Nevertheless I could not help but feel that many of the British public, his target audience, would have agreed with him. The “get on with it”, “stiff upper lip”, “plucky” British spirit we so greatly admire had not seemingly been on show from the American Biles. Had she gone onto show her class and dominate the individual events, she would have widely been viewed in the diva-ish terms I alluded to earlier.
It all changed the following day however. Upon withdrawing from the all-around final, Biles revealed she had “the twisties”. For the uninitiated, this is what some call “the yips” and for those who don’t know what those are, they are the immediate and uncontrollable loss or degeneration of an athlete’s skills.
The speed and body positions involved in elite gymnastics are fractions away from being extremely dangerous
Elite cricketers – such as Scott Boswell, who was forced into retirement after a meltdown in the 2001 English One Day Cup Final – are vulnerable to this too, as well as golfers and baseball players. It can be tragically career-ending in these sports, but if something like this were to go wrong in gymnastics, it could be life-threatening. The speed and body positions involved in elite gymnastics are fractions away from being extremely dangerous, and Biles rightly said when first pulling out: “I don’t want to do something stupid…it’s not worth it.”
Though this may be met with some ridicule given my relative abilities, I confess I have experienced the yips. As a young cricketer I used to bowl competent leg spin, but after a humiliating nets session with some very wayward bowling aged 15, I totally lost control of the skill and could no longer do it. Sometimes when I am acting subconsciously I can pick up a ball and bowl a decent leg spinner but if I try and replicate it, to this day, I can’t. It is a real, serious thing, and in gymnastics it is incredibly dangerous to be expected to perform with it.
And it is cricket where Morgan’s prejudicial and misguided opinions became further unstuck. Soon after Biles pulled out of two further events, English cricketing hero Ben Stokes announced he was taking an “indefinite break” to concentrate on his mental health. In this instance, Morgan stopped short of praising him, but failed to criticise him in the same terms he did for Biles and noted that England would be weaker without him. His argument for this inconsistency, was that Stokes pulled out before the series rather than during it, but that is not an acceptable defence on Morgan’s part.
If you observe Biles’ demeanour on the day things started to go wrong, as mentioned earlier, she made her decision to withdraw very quickly. Such was her facial expression when she landed the vault that she seemed resigned to a reality that appeared to have been on her mind before the event began. Whether you believe her decision to withdraw was courageous or not, there is no question she was courageous to even take part in the first place.
Upon hearing her “twisties” problem, I was certain Biles would pull out of every remaining event in the Olympics. Three more events followed and with only the Beam to come, surely one of the most dangerous events there is, I had no doubt she would pull out of that too.
Having to avoid twists in her routine with the problem persisting, for her to come away with a bronze is an outstanding achievement. Despite already being a four-time Olympic champion, it is surely her greatest given this limitation and the intense mental strain yips can provide. It is a wonderful and heroic story of never giving up, and she has shown incredible courage in the face of adversity.
No doubt Morgan will criticise her; with his latest line of attack on Twitter to say that only gold medallists (or “real winners”) deserve any credit despite himself having all the athletic ability of a sack of potatoes. He will continue to call her mentally weak and “a quitter”, while he quit a job where he literally had to sit down and read an autocue.
Nevertheless on this occasion, he has got it badly wrong. His unfair article – combined with his ridiculous inconsistency regarding Ben Stokes – will be rejected as such by the British public, whose support he always so badly craves.