Biles soars above the noise: Neil Humphreys
Athletes must put their mental health before our demands
Tokyo 2020 has struggled with the wrong noise. Empty heads replaced empty stadiums. A screaming Piers Morgan stood in for screaming crowds.
The media personality knew better than Simone Biles about her own mental health, apparently. The American gymnast's earlier decision to withdraw from several events made Morgan angry. He wasn't alone.
Where there was supposed to be respect, there was rage, so much rage.
Our simplified, perhaps even stupefied, binary behaviour on social media inevitably spilled over into the Olympics.
Biles needed rest, according to most rational people. Biles was using the mental health card to excuse poor performances, according to Morgan (and his online army of foaming acolytes).
Yesterday, the pendulum swung back in Biles' favour after she returned to win a bronze medal in the balance beam. She was brilliant again, according to Morgan and the hypocritical hordes.
The schizophrenic mood swings on social media are hard to keep up with. Imagine what they must be like for modern sportspeople. Their identities change from one tweet to the next.
Naomi Osaka was an exhausted tennis player. Osaka was a pampered, multi-millionaire. Joseph Schooling was an Olympic legend. Schooling was a regressing swimmer no longer committed to the nation's cause.
They are whatever we want them to be. We bend their personal struggles to suit our narrative, our agenda and clickbait comments. It's all about us, not them. It's appalling, obviously, but hardly surprising.
The remorseless nature of social media has created a 24/7 cycle of one-sided attack with no definitive filter. By all means, block a troll. Block two. But how do you block a billion?
Welcome to the world of Biles, Osaka and Schooling and England centre-back Tyrone Mings and tennis prodigy Emma Raducanu and any other young sportsperson trying to make sense of a brutal environment, not of their creation or control.
They face pressure unlike any other in sporting history, clearly.
And yet, that isn't clear to those fond of irrelevant comparisons and war rhetoric. After all, kids younger than Biles and Osaka fought in wars, right? Kids today have no idea what real pressure is, do they?
Pressure is for cookers. Let's churn out all those inspirational quotes from Vince Lombardi and other coaching legends and throw these melting snowflakes back into the real world.
But Biles, Osaka and Schooling, to focus on just three, do live in the real world, a world beyond our comprehension. It's that binary hellhole between gushing adoration and poisonous invective. The cycle is unceasing and unbreakable. There is, quite literally, no escape.
Biles cannot just be a gymnast. She must carry the hopes of African-American girls and those who see her as a powerful tool in racial politics. Osaka must be a literal and metaphorical torch-bearer for a divided, pandemic-weary Japan.
In Singapore, Schooling is a poster boy for Sport Singapore or a political hot potato over his national service deferment.
The kid just wanted to swim like Michael Phelps.
But that's not enough any more. He must satisfy the demands of a social media monster and accept the criticisms of millions of voices hiding in the dark. All elite athletes do.
They can't get the twisties in gymnastics, the jitters or the yips or suffer a poor touch or turn. To err is human, but to whine on Twitter is the divine right of all except Olympians.
NEVER SWITCH OFF
They must be greater than the sum of their fragile parts. Always. Never make a mistake, in the arena or in front of a microphone. Never switch off because social media never switches off.
Social media feeds on human error. And the memes live forever.
Within seconds of Schooling's loss, the digital platforms erupted, spewing sympathy and scorn in equal measure, the online schizophrenia taking hold and spreading across the country.
Schooling hadn't even dried off yet.
And he was alone out there. They all were. Biles, Osaka and every other competitor were expected to excel at the ghostly Games without the support of loved ones and fellow countrymen and women screaming in the stands.
Instead, the screaming moved online - ugly, anonymous and ubiquitous.
Biles silenced them yesterday, beautifully and defiantly, but temporarily. They'll return. They always do.
And when that happens, maybe we'll concentrate on the only voices that matter. There's been enough pontificating over Biles' actions. Perhaps now, we'll focus on her words.