During the final of the women’s eight rowing at the Athens Olympics in 2004, the Australian team, running fifth with 500 metres to go, fell back into last place when one of their number, Sally Robbins, dropped her oar and fell back in exhaustion onto the teammate behind her.
The response from the Australian media, the Australian public, and the Australian rowing community – including her teammates – was almost unanimous: Sally Robbins was a weak quitter who had publicly disgraced herself.
The amount of vitriol poured onto the 23-year-old was astounding: few actual criminals have ever received such a furious, prolonged and merciless bout of public condemnation as that heaped on Robbins, who had, in the words of the Daily Telegraph, “committed the greatest crime there is in honest sport: she quit.”
At the time I felt that I was the only person in Australia feeling any sympathy at all for Sally Robbins. To my mind, nobody goes through the years of pain and sacrifice necessary to become an Olympic athlete without being fully committed to their goal, and having done so, nobody would give up mid-race unless they truly had no more to give.
The commentary around the incident, which mostly seemed to suggest that Robbins was perfectly capable of going on but was just lazy, seemed to me to be ridiculous: a lazy woman, a woman who didn’t really care about the team, wouldn’t be there in the first place.
I’d like to think that in 2021, when people are a little bit more aware of the terrible pressures placed on elite sportspeople, and the terrible toll – both physical and mental – they can take, if the “Lay Down Sally” incident happened today, the response would be a little more moderate.
The reaction to the Simone Biles affair has given me faith that this would indeed be the case – while also making me despair that, while a kinder gentler world has made some headway in the last 17 years, there’s still a sizeable portion of the sport-loving population that is stuck in a far crueller worldview.
Now, Simone Biles is not Sally Robbins. While Robbins was an unknown until her collapse in Athens, Biles is the most famous and most accomplished gymnast in the world by some distance.
She is one of that special handful of sportspeople who can lay claim to the title of GOAT without brooking a lot of argument. She is so good that the sport’s judges have struggled to find appropriate ways to even assess how good she is, and she has already achieved more, at the age of 24, than 99.99 per cent of humanity could hope to achieve if they lived their life twice over.
She’s done all this, incidentally, in a brutal sport that is notorious for physically and mentally destroying young girls, and after suffering years of vile abuse at the hands of her coach.
If nobody becomes an Olympic athlete without pain and sacrifice and single-minded commitment, it’s sure as hell true that Simone Biles has already demonstrated more guts, determination and relentless focus on her goals than most of us could imagine.
So why, after all that, would she drop out of competition in this year’s Olympics? Selfishness? Mental softness? Cowardice? She’s been accused of all of these, which just goes to show there’s no winning with some people: if Simone Biles can’t convince you that she’s not a wuss, nobody will.
I could never hope to know exactly what Biles was feeling that made her feel it would be a bad idea to continue in the competition. I certainly don’t know what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete. The only tiny, tenuous, probably-completely-spurious connection I can lay claim to is that I know what it’s like to have your brain turn on you, and I know what it’s like to look at what’s in front of you and feel simply overwhelmed with fear and panic.
I know what it’s like to simply not be able to carry on. And I know what it’s like to feel the hot shame of that. There have been plenty of times when I’ve made up a lie to get out of a commitment, claiming I’ve come down with something, or there’s an emergency at home, rather than admitting that I’m mentally shattered.
Simone Biles didn’t make up an excuse. She simply said her head was not right, and that competing when her head was not right would not be safe, and would not be fair to her team.
Now, we know Biles is courageous. She spends her life launching herself into the air, knowing that a slight miscalculation can result in broken bones or even permanent disability. Anyone who questions her bravery is talking out of the wrong orifice.
But then, professional sportspeople are pretty much all courageous. It takes massive courage for a rugby player to look up at 300-plus kilos of rock-hard muscle waiting to crush him, and charge at full pace straight into it. It takes guts galore for an AFL player, muscles screaming and lungs burning, to summon the will to run another hundred metres to get to the right position to save the team.
It takes courage to leap from a high-diving board, or to run without stopping for the length of a marathon even after you know you can’t win, or to step into a ring with someone determined to beat your brains in. Hell, it takes courage just to step out on a field, eyes of the world upon you, knowing you might fail in front of them all.
But make no mistake, there are few things more courageous than being the most famous exponent of your sport in the world, carrying the expectations of millions on your shoulders, standing under the scorching glare of the global spotlight in the very spot that you’ve pushed your body past all reasonable limits for years to get to…and then saying “no.”
If you think there’s anything gutless about what Simone Biles has done, then you just haven’t thought it through. Because Biles has performed one of the most terrifying feats a sportsperson can perform: she’s refused to conform to expectations. And that’s what’s infuriated so many: the fact that she didn’t follow the script.
But the script is nonsense, and it always has been. The script says that once you decide to pursue a career in sport, the sport owns you. The script says you must do what you are told no matter what. The script says that you “owe” something to millions of people you’ve never met and who’ve never done anything for you. The script says that while most people have the right to live their life the way they want to, if you’re good at games you forfeit that right.
And most of all, the script says that anyone who decides they don’t want to follow the script – even if they’ve been following it for years and suffered unimaginable pain because of it – is the villain.
Like I said, it’s been promising how many people have come out in support of Simone Biles, even as other voices deride her. Hopefully, some day we’ll reach a point where those voices are so outnumbered we don’t even hear them, and nobody feels they have to destroy themselves for the sake of someone else’s expectations.
Hopefully some day we’ll reach a point where Sally Robbins gets her apology too.