Simone Biles

USA's Simone Biles reacts after competing in the artistic gymnastics women's balance beam final of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on August 3, 2021.


Olympic orature and poisoned chalice of sporting success

What you need to know:

  • Simone Biles, with her basketful of medals, most of them gold, from Rio and many other contests, went to Tokyo 2020 as a gymnastics “GOAT”.
  • Biles was practically a “no-show” at the Tokyo games, apart from a disastrous first appearance and a token performance where she collected a bronze medal at the tail-end of the events.

I was surprised to hear Simone Biles, the stunning diminutive American gymnast, being called a “GOAT”. I guessed that the name might have something to do with the folklore of Mediterranean Greece, where the Olympic Games originated. Biles, as you know, shot to prominence at the Rio 2016 Olympics, where she astonished the world with her near-perfect performance in her sport.

But the only feature of Greek orature I could remember dwelling on goat-like beings was of satyrs. These preternatural creatures of the imagination, however, with a mixture of goat and human features were male. Their main occupation was the chasing of the lovely nymphs, their female counterparts, with ulterior motives, of course. Simone Biles did not fit into either of these “satirical” frames.

Only later did I learn from my dotcom savvy friends that “GOAT” meant “greatest of all time”. The Americans, with their love of abbreviations had taught me yet another acronym. So, Simone Biles, with her basketful of medals, most of them gold, from Rio and many other contests, went to Tokyo 2020 as a gymnastics “GOAT”.

Incidentally, back to the Greek roots, do you realise that “gymnastics” itself refers to a level of education? I quote from memory, but I believe that ancient classical education was graded according to the emphasis laid on the aspects of human development. The gymnasium dwelt mainly on physical development, training the body for optimal performance. The lyceum handled communication and expressive skills, and the academy (walking school) taught critical, philosophical thinking.

My friend Prof Ochieng’ Ong’ondo at the KICD will help us shed more light on that. I also remember that at some of the esoteric establishments we attended in our youth, our secondary classes were labelled Grammar, Prose, Poetry and Rhetoric, corresponding to what we have been calling forms one to four, until recently. An old mwalimu cannot resist the temptation to mull over such memories.

Simone Biles "no-show"

But back to Biles, the “GOAT”, and the hyperbolic praise and adulation that follow such sporting glory, I already had a hunch, even before the plucky lassie headed to Tokyo, that the praise-songs were a kind of poisoned chalice. This is another image from classical orature. Just as a malign host might offer you a deadly drink in a glittering golden cup, the exaggerated expectations of the fawning fans could, and would, affect her performance.

As it turned out, phenomenal Simone Biles was practically a “no-show” at the Tokyo games, apart from a disastrous first appearance and a token performance where she collected a bronze medal at the tail-end of the events. A perfectly convincing explanation of her withdrawal from most of the events was “mental health”.

The skyrocketing expectations of her fans, the press and the public at large had put extreme pressure on the poor girl’s mind. It was simply not safe for her to go leaping, clambering and cavorting on contraptions where the slightest lapse of concentration could cost you not only a medal but also the integrity of your neck.

You will remember my telling you a closely similar tale of the Japanese tennis star, Naomi Osaka, who actually lit the Tokyo Olympic Flame at the opening ceremony of the games. Osaka’s problems had, in fact, started earlier, with the big European tournaments, out of which she had decided to withdraw, owing to “press pressure”.

I had speculated that she would not compete in Tokyo. But I was wrong, and when she lit that big fire for Japan and the world, she put all of us doubters in our places, including the Japanese racist bigots who grumbled about her being “hafu” (only half-Japanese). Marjorie Macgoye’s intimate poem, “Letter to a Friend” (the friend being Okot p’Bitek), defiantly asserts, “My children are not half-anything”. Still, Naomi’s performance on the court was far below her potential and she did not “medal”.

How we treat our sportspeople

Anyway, as we fete our Olympians, after Tokyo 2020, we should take time to reflect, again, on how we treat our sportspeople and other cultural workers. How do we show our solidarity with them, before, during and after their participation in international events? We no doubt feel proud of them, especially when they excel in their disciplines out there. They “put us on the map”, as we say.

I, for example, was deeply touched to note that Kenya came first on the African medal table at Tokyo, with Uganda a close third. This is no mean feat, especially when you note that several African “giants” came out almost empty-handed (waliambulia patupu). Kongole (kudos), Eliud Kipchoge, Faith Kipyegon and all the sisters and brothers!

Desultory flares of pride and praise, however, are not good enough for our distinguished performers. We all, individuals, communities and the state, must develop constant and systematic ways of supporting our performers in their everyday lives and their preparations for and participation in the big events that bring us the glory. Simply lauding them or giving them token “envelopes” and other such baubles when they return from their exploits may turn out to be a form of poisoned chalice.

I believe the idea of a “Hall of Fame” for our sportspeople has been around for a while. I do not know how close it is to implementation. More urgently, those who have shown exceptional ability should be systematically and officially supported in their preparations for even better performances in future events. The next Olympics, for example, in Paris in 2024, are only three years away, and before those, there are the Commonwealth Games, next year. Our athletes hardly have any time for idle plaudits and celebrations. Twende kazi (let’s get down to work).

Finally, if this has not been done already, we should ensure regular and, preferably, lifelong stipends for our best performers. I still remember with sorrow, the taxi-driving days of the late Joe Kadenge, opposite the GOP, and Uganda’s Commonwealth Games medallist, Judith Ayaa, begging on Kampala streets.

Far from our athletes, and other cultural performers, be forever such poisoned chalices.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]