Game Theory

Admitting vulnerability has long been anathema to Black Americans striving to win in all kinds of hostile environments, including athletics. Finally, that’s changing.

Simone Biles of Team United States competes on vault during Women’s Qualification on day two of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Sunday. | Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images


07/29/2021 06:01 PM EDT

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Erin Aubry Kaplan is a journalist in Los Angeles and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times.

When superstar gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from team competition this past week at the Tokyo Olympics, citing emotional exhaustion that was hampering her ability to perform, the world gasped. It seemed not to know what to make of a top athlete — and, in Biles’ case, a cultural phenomenon and a singular force in gymnastics — choosing to step away from a game while it was still in play, especially the Olympics, the most venerated of sporting events.

And yet it made perfect sense. Biles was simply saying “no” to the enormous pressure, physical and psychological, that an event like the Olympics demands. In many ways, she’s lucky. As a giant of gymnastics who’s already proven her superior talent with a whole history of gold medals behind her, she had the option of exit — she could write her own ticket, so to speak. But she wasn’t stepping down just because she could. Biles is part of a new, more subtle chapter of Black activism that is elevating personal reflection and self-care over the emotional stoicism and resilience that has long been a feature of Black struggle, and of Black success.

The fact it’s happening among Black athletes like Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka is no accident. Admitting vulnerability was always anathema to Black Americans striving to win in all kinds of hostile environments, most vividly the fight for civil rights in the 1960s that required nonviolent protesters to remain impassive. But it was perhaps especially anathema to athletes striving to win, period — cross the finish line, put points on the scoreboard. In 2021, thanks to the Black Lives Matter ethos of acknowledging and centering Black humanity, that old approach is being turned on its head: Admitting vulnerability is becoming a strength. It is progress of a particular kind. For a renowned athlete like Biles to inhabit uncertainty at the height of global expectations for her affirms Black humanity — and humanness — in a way that street protests, for all their political importance, can’t.

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