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Time names Simone Biles — who pulled out of the Olympics to focus on mental health — 'Athlete of the Year,' interviews Colin Kaepernick in the write-up

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In what some may view as a controversial decision, Time declared U.S. gymnast Simone Biles its "Athlete of the Year" for 2021 on Thursday.

While Biles is unquestionably one of the greatest American Olympic athletes ever and perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time, Time's declaration in 2021 says less about the athlete's accomplishments in the arena and more about her contribution to a cultural cause.

What's the background?

During the Olympics in Tokyo last summer, Biles shocked the world by abruptly withdrawing from both team and individual competitions "in order to focus on her mental health."

The world-class athlete was bogged down by intense mental pressure and was reportedly experiencing a phenomenon known as "the twisties" that left her unsure of her whereabouts while careening through the air. She was supposed to compete for up to five gold medals at the games. Instead, she won a team silver and a bronze in the balance beam event.

"I say put mental health first because if you don't then you're not gonna enjoy your sport, and you're not gonna succeed as much as you want to," Biles told reporters at the time. "So, it's OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and person that you really are rather than just battle through it."

"At the end of the day, I have to do what was right for me," she added, noting, "It just sucks that it happened at the Olympic Games."

What are the details?

On Thursday, Time celebrated Biles' decision and "fortitude," crediting her with "propel[ling] mental health to the forefront of a broader cultural conversation."

"Biles made clear the importance of prioritizing oneself and refusing to succumb to external expectations," the magazine argued. "With the eyes of the world upon her, she took the extraordinary step of saying, That’s enough. I’m enough."

It's a far different perspective on Biles pulling out of competition than some commentators adopted.

Conservative sports analyst and BlazeTV host Jason Whitlock said in the wake of Biles' withdrawal: "Nothing has changed more rapidly [in America] than our position on quitting. In 48 hours, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles transformed the felonious act of quitting into a deed of breathtaking heroism."

"When the going gets tough, the tough claim the mental stress was just too high," he added.

What else?

Intent on leaning into the cultural moment, Time highlighted Biles' ethnicity in the write-up and made sure to name-drop other woke athletes of color such as Japanese Tennis star Naomi Osaka and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The magazine even snuck a George Floyd mention into the piece.

"When a Black female athlete like Biles takes visible steps to safeguard her own mental and physical health, to indicate that it’s worth protecting, that action carries a special power," Time reported.

Kaepernick, whom Time described as "no stranger to criticism for taking a stand," praised Biles’ “grace, eloquence, and courage" in a conversation with the magazine.

“Simone Biles has used her remarkable position as the world’s greatest gymnast ever to inspire a long overdue global conversation on mental health,” he said. “Her influence extends far beyond the realm of sports and shows us that another world — a better world — is possible when we speak our truths with integrity and authenticity.”

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