Simone Biles has recently become the most decorated gymnast in world championship history, bar none. Her gold medals in the balance beam and floor exercises tipped her career medal count to 25, shattering Vitaly Scherbo’s record of 23 medals set between 1991 and 1996 while representing the Soviet Union. Biles has been in the limelight since her 2013 domination of the world championships, and quickly became a household name following her historic performance at the 2016 Olympic Games. Her victory was especially spectacular given that female gymnasts only compete in six world championship events, compared to the eight of their male counterparts.
Despite her resounding success and undeniable talent, Biles is still subject to the criticisms that are unfortunately too prevalent towards female athletes. Many took to the Internet to denounce her attitude towards her wins as “cocky.” Biles went on record to combat her critics, saying “I’ve won five World titles and if I say, ‘I’m the best gymnast there is,’ [the reaction is] ‘Oh, she’s cocky. Look at her now.’ No, the facts are literally on paper.” Biles went further to comment on how important embracing success is for young women, saying, “You only see the men doing it. And they’re praised for it and the women are looked down upon for it. But I feel like it’s good [to do] because once you realize you’re confident and good at it, then you’re even better at what you do.”
Biles is not new to being condemned for supposed arrogance. Earlier this year, she caught heat for wearing a leotard with ‘BILES’ printed on the back to the qualifying meet for the U.S. gymnastics championships. According to USA Today, the original plan was for the entire team to sport their names before they realized that one gymnast’s name was too long, leaving only Biles and her teammate, Jordan Chiles, to wear the personalized leotards. Biles, taking the opportunity to poke fun back at her critics, wore a personalized leotard to the next meet as well, this time accompanied by a picture of a goat – alluding to the acronym G.O.A.T., meaning “greatest of all time.”
She spoke about her decision at the time, saying “You’ll go your whole entire career and everybody will tell you you’re great. But the minute … you say you’re good, (people are) like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re so cocky!” This rings especially true for a majority of professional female athletes. The U.S. women’s national soccer team faced similar criticism after the 2019 World Cup, in which they defeated Thailand with a record-breaking 13-0 score. Commentators and viewers alike were quick to denounce them for running the score up to such a large gap, as well as for celebrating “too much” after each goal. “After it’s 6-0 you stop doing choreographed dances and such,” said one Twitter user. Men’s teams have yet to face similar criticism for large victories or zealous celebration – in fact, the NFL Honors ceremony even includes a category for “Celebration of the Year.”
This everyday sexism runs so deep in professional sports that it is often swept under the rug, or accepted as part of the game. Serena Williams, internationally-lauded tennis superstar, faced a multi-thousand dollar fine for alleged illegal coaching and verbal abuse against a referee, whom she called a “thief.” In a press conference following the match, she said, “I’ve seen other men call other umpires several things . . . For me to say ‘thief’ and for him to take a game? It made me feel like it was a sexist remark. He’s never took a game from a man ’cause they [said] ‘thief.’”
Despite the never-ending stream of indisputably gifted, hard-working women that the professional sports industry sees, far too many still see the arena as a man’s field. Female athletes – and especially those of color – can etch their names onto the walls of history and yet still be subject to the seemingly unshakable casual sexism and racism that is ingrained in our society. We have taught women that embracing their athletic talent is criminal. We equate their pride with arrogance, and their joy with overzealousness. Simone Biles is currently the greatest gymnast – no two questions about it – and she has every right to be proud of that fact. It is high time society stops punishing women for succeeding in a world where the odds are almost always stacked against them.