Simone Biles’ Recent Actions Have Made People Rethink Kerri Strug’s Performance At The 1996 Olympics
Time can change our perspective. Sometimes when the years pass and circumstances change, we realize that what seemed like a good idea when we were young is actually a bad idea. Having kids only adds to our change in perspective as we see the world through their eyes.
A dad named Byron Heath was inspired by gymnast Kerri Strug when she won Olympic gold back in 1996. He thought her story was one of perseverance, and he thought it would be inspiring to share her story with his daughters who were taking gymnastics. In a Facebook post, he wrote, “Yesterday I was excited to show my daughters Kerri Strug’s famous one-leg vault. It was a defining Olympic moment that I watched live as a kid, and my girls watched raptly as Strug fell, and then limped back to leap again.”
When Heath showed his daughter’s Strug’s performance at the Olympics, he realized her story wasn’t very inspiring after all. He explained, “But for some reason I wasn’t as inspired watching it this time. In fact, I felt a little sick. Maybe being a father and teacher has made me soft, but all I could see was how Kerri Strug looked at her coach, Bela Karolyi, with pleading, terrified eyes, while he shouted back ‘You can do it!’ over and over again.”
His daughters didn’t feel inspired by Strug’s performance either. Heath shared, “My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault. Instead they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.”
The girls asked their dad, “Why did she jump again if she was hurt?” Heath didn’t know how to respond. He wrote, “I made some inane reply about the heart of a champion or Olympic spirit, but in the back of my mind a thought was festering: *She shouldn’t have jumped again*”
Heath realized Strug needed medical help, but her coach refused to help her, only focused on winning gold and not caring about the health of his athlete. He wrote, “Coach Karolyi should have gotten his visibly injured athlete medical help immediately! Now that I have two young daughters in gymnastics, I expect their safety to be the coach’s number one priority. Instead, Bela Karolyi told Strug to vault again. And he got what he wanted; a gold medal that was more important to him than his athlete’s health.”
Heath knows that Karolyi wasn’t the only one focused on winning. He added, “I’m sure people will say ‘Kerri Strug was a competitor–she WANTED to push through the injury.’ That’s probably true.”
Yet Heath thinks a teenager should not be pushed so far that she ends up injuring herself for life. He explained, “But since the last Olympics we’ve also learned these athletes were put into positions where they could be systematically abused both emotionally and physically, all while being inundated with ‘win at all costs’ messaging. A teenager under those conditions should have been protected, and told ‘No medal is worth the risk of permanent injury.’ In fact, we now know that Strug’s vault wasn’t even necessary to clinch the gold; the U.S. already had an insurmountable lead.” He added, “The injury forced Strug’s retirement at 18 years old.”
Heath added how seeing Simone Biles choose health over winning gold has helped change his perspective. He wrote, “Today Simone Biles–the greatest gymnast of all time–chose to step back from the competition, citing concerns for mental and physical health. I’ve already seen comments and posts about how Biles ‘failed her country’, ‘quit on us’, or ‘can’t be the greatest if she can’t handle the pressure.’ Those statements are no different than Coach Karolyi telling an injured teen with wide, frightened eyes: ‘We got to go one more time. Shake it out.’ The subtext here is: ‘Our gold medal is more important than your well-being.'”
After rewatching Strug’s performance with his daughters and seeing Biles prioritize her health, Heath has a new perspective about what should and should not be expected of Olympic athletes. He wrote, “Our athletes shouldn’t have to destroy themselves to meet our standards. If giving empathetic, authentic support to our Olympians means we’ll earn less gold medals, I’m happy to make that trade.”
He also has a message specifically for Biles. “You are an outstanding athlete, a true role model, and a powerful woman. Nothing will change that. Please don’t sacrifice your emotional or physical well-being for our entertainment or national pride. We are proud of you for being brave enough to compete, and proud of you for having the wisdom to know when to step back. Your choice makes you an even better example to our daughters than you were before. WE’RE STILL ROOTING FOR YOU!”
Do you think Strug’s story was inspiring? Do you think her coach should have gotten her medical help instead of forcing her to continue to compete?