Op-EdOpinion

WILLIAMS: Spirit of the Olympics

With few exceptions, every four years, citizens of the world revel in the pomp, ceremonies and athletic excellence of the Olympic Games. Something in the human spirit admires the competition of the games and, for that moment in time, the emergence of the best athletes.

Like many this year, my attention has been primarily focused on gymnastics. I admire the grace, skill and agility of gymnasts and the long-term perseverance required to develop their craft to the level of world competition. I have nieces who are fledgling gymnasts and I know the extent of commitment required for them to compete at the local and state levels. I know of the hours they spend in practice each day while also managing their schoolwork and household responsibilities. I can attest that this is no small or insignificant task. It tests the full measure of their physical and emotional strength.

My exposure to their gymnastic experience gives me a degree of insight into the challenge of maintaining the personal “balance” required to compete with regularity. That insight is why I condemn the criticism directed at Simone Biles for prioritizing her mental health ahead of competing in the Tokyo Olympics.

I have read that she has been criticized for a lack of “toughness.” Some criticism questions her patriotism and commitment to the country that she is supposed to represent. She has been accused of being self-centered and self-indulgent. These unjust critiques are of the same ilk as those used to deride and degrade tennis star Naomi Osaka. Both of these young women have chosen their mental well-being over the expectations for their athletic performance. This choice is just as important as if they had pulled a muscle or broken a bone. (This may not be true for Simone, as she has been known to compete with broken toes.)

Their concern for personal mental health and well-being may be a newly expressed reason, but the expected “right” of the external control of “our” performance is nothing new. It harkens back to the control exercised throughout our existence in this nation — from slavery through the civil rights era to today.

When Colin Kaepernick took a knee, he was disparaged as lacking a sense of patriotism. He was called a “bastard” by the sitting president. He was accused of being an ingrate who was privileged to be allowed to make the huge sums of money he made for playing a game. His placing principles over dollars was inconsistent with the mindset of those who criticized him. Prospering silently while others suffer under the oppression of systemic racism was not in Colin’s “playbook.” His critics could only focus on money, but his principles caused him to focus on the injustice occurring daily in his community.

And who can forget Fox Media personality (not newscaster) Laura Ingraham telling LeBron James to “shut up and dribble.” I have always believed that telling someone to “shut up” was among the greatest insults one could give another human being. It is tantamount to telling someone he or she is worthless. It is unacceptable to think that LeBron would sit in silence while the so-called leader of the free world practiced the vilest racism.

At the peril of their careers and lifestyles, Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jim Brown, John Carlos, Tommie Smith and others have ignored the demand for them to “shut up and perform” or “go along to get along.” Each of them demonstrated their steadfast belief in a purpose higher than just existing as well-paid but muted entertainers. They, and we, are more than performers. Like the spirit of the Olympiad, we will exercise our right to express the full measure of our talents.

Williams is president of the National Congress of Black Women.

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