Simone Biles Is ESPN's Woman Of The Year, But She Could Just As Easily Be Athlete Of The Year
Even though it's been a few months since the Olympics ended, there are a few athletes from the games who still loom very large in my brain. And apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so, as Simone Biles has been chosen as ESPN's Woman of the Year. The 19-year old Olympic gold medalist tops espnW's IMPACT25, a list of the top 25 athletes who made "the greatest impact for women's sports" in 2016. And while that's an incredible honor, and I'd be insane to say otherwise, I have to admit that it makes me wrinkle my nose a little bit to see these physical powerhouses and world champions shunted off into their own category based only on their gender.
I understand the sentiment behind having a list of ladies who have benefited the world of women's sports, because there is still a marked divide in the way we as a society treat male and female athletes, and engage with male sports teams and female sports teams. I just wish we could skip ahead to the part where the NBA and the WNBA were taken equally seriously, or where when a woman said she played baseball, someone didn't immediately come back with, "Do you mean softball?"
But even with these persistent gaps along the lines of gender, the Olympics are supposed to be the one place where those politics don't come into play. The athletes at the Olympic Games are the best in the world, and you're there to watch them compete. And this past year, in Rio de Janeiro, the event to watch was unquestionably the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team, and Biles in particular. She came into the Rio Games as the favorite, with a tremendous amount of pressure on her, pressure that it would have been easy to buckle under, as Biles' ESPN profile points out:
There is the risk of potential humiliation, of letting people down, of not being the gilded, galloping unicorn you've been advertised to be. A favorite is not allowed to falter. A lock can never be a surprise. Worse, confidence can read as smugness, inviting schadenfreude. America is nothing if not invested in the narrative of the underdog.
But Biles created her own narrative, setting the proverbial bar so high that her competitors had to push themselves to the limit to have any hope of even catching her. She made it look easy, and she did it without ever succumbing to the pressures that had been heaped on her by alternately adoring and critical audience. Biles won four gold medals and a bronze at the 2016 Games, leaving Rio as the most decorated American gymnast in history — not the most decorated female gymnast, but the most decorate gymnast overall, and she's widely considered to be the best gymnast of all time.
So to see her honored by ESPN as a woman is wonderful, and I throw my full support behind this living breathing superhuman, but I'd much rather see her honored as an athlete. Biles did more for her sport, her team, and her country this year than any other athlete (except maybe Katie Ledecky), and I'd love to see that reflected in her title.