On July 19, 1996, the Summer Olympics kickstarted with one of the biggest and most expensive opening ceremonies in Olympic history. It was the first Olympics to not receive any form of government funding – and for good reason. Held in Atlanta, Georgia, the 1996 Olympics cost an eye-watering $1.7 billion, all funded from the pockets of mega-corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
These deep corporate pockets lined the Centennial Olympic Stadium with gorgeously attired trumpeters and mystical performers representing each color of the Olympic logo. It’s a breathtaking scene, even if you only watch it through a screen, that seems to draw inspiration from the (in)famous ball games of Mesoamerican cultures.
This ancient ancestor of modern football or soccer, depending on where you live, has long been plagued by the myth that the ancient Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed their players during the games.
On the contrary, this habit of sacrificing players for the glory of the games and national pride belongs to the modern Olympics. The 1996 games would feature one of the most memorable ones.
The Olympic Sacrifices
Former gymnast Kerri Strug represented America in the 1996 Olympics. Emphasis on former. The then-Olympic athlete began her career at the tender age of three and joined the U.S gymnastics team at just 14 years old. The team would train for the next four years for their shot at Olympic gold and, at long last, entered the 1996 Olympics as a group that would be known as the Magnificent Seven.
The Magnificent Seven battled their way through the Olympics against the gymnastic teams from Russia and Romania, known powerhouses in the field of women’s gymnastics. Between Kerri Strug, Amanda Borden, Dominique Dawes, Jaycie Phelps, Shannon Miller, Dominique Moceanu, and Amy Chow, the team racked up points while making a lot of historic firsts. For one, Chow was the first Asian American Olympic gymnast; while Miller had the honor of being inducted into the U.S Olympic Hall of Fame twice, making her the first woman to accomplish such a feat.
But of the superhuman feats on display from the Magnificent Seven, it was Kerri Strug’s broken foot that burned its way into Olympic history.
Strug had already injured her foot on her first vault. Despite this, coach Bela Karolyi pushed her to finish a second vault. Facebook user Byron Heath retells the events in a viral post that garnered over 399,000 reactions. In it, he describes Simone Biles’ exit from the 2020 Olympics and how fatherhood had changed his views on Strug’s famous one-legged vault.
Heath, like many of us, admitted that he once saw Kerri Strug’s second vault as this awe-inspiring moment of achievement. But sitting there with his daughters, watching someone else’s daughter be encouraged by a coach to injure herself, had made him “a little sick”.
“My daughters didn’t cheer when Strug landed her second vault.” Heath wrote, “Instead, they frowned in concern as she collapsed in agony and frantic tears.”
As an article from the official Olympics website itself said, “If one moment can change your life, this was it.”
The added injury to her already fractured ankle cut Kerri Strug’s Olympic career short. She snapped tendons of her feet and was forced to retire from the Olympic games permanently. There would be no next gold or even bronze for her. The worst part? Strug likely didn’t even have to risk her health to clinch the gold medal.
Yet the damage to Strug’s foot is done and with it, the damage to how Olympics fans see athletes. Among the many well wishes for Simone Biles written in the comments section of Byron Heath’s post are several nasty remarks, one of which is a sharp ad hominem towards him and his daughters.
“This is why your daughters won’t be Olympians.” One user wrote.
The message is clear: the people will have their circus even if that means leaving young women bloody, battered, and dead on the altar of national pride.
And die they did.
During the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, then 15-year-old Julissa Gomez slipped on a springboard, sending her head smashing against a vaulting horse. The accident left her paralyzed from the neck down, leading to her death at just 18 years old, following complications from her paralysis.
Another famous example is former Russian gymnast Elena Mukhina, who was once a rising star of the Soviet Women’s Artistic Gymnastics scene. Mukhina was presented to government officials as “the next big thing” in the Soviet Union’s growing array of gymnastic talents. But talent doesn’t equate to luck.
In 1979, a broken leg left Mukhina with virtually no time to prepare for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She would have an accident again, just two weeks before the games, that would end her entire gymnastics career.
While Kerri Strug was able to continue her career behind the scenes, dabbling in teaching gymnastics at clinics and camps, Elena Mukhina fell while attempting to perform a Thomas Salto. She ended up landing on her chin, crashing to the ground with a sickening crack that heralded a shattered spine.
Though she became quadriplegic, Mukhina spent the remaining years of her life in seclusion, likely due to the stress but also because of the Soviet government’s smear campaign against her, only once speaking publicly about the incident to criticize the “gold at all costs” attitude that the Soviet gymnastics program pushed on their athletes.
She died on December 22, 2006, due to complications from quadriplegia. Prior to her death, Mukhina received the prestigious Olympic Order, an honorary award from the International Olympic Committee, acknowledging her talents prior to her career-ending fall.
Much better than the award, however, was the resulting change in rules that followed Mukhina’s injury. The Thomas Salto was banned from the Code of Points after Elena Mukhina’s paralyzing accident.
Given the obvious danger posed by competing with any form of injury to gymnastics athletes, it was a no-brainer that Simone Biles withdrew from the floor exercises event final of this year’s Tokyo Olympics. Biles had already exited from the all-around event prior to this, citing a case of the ‘twisties’ as the reason for her withdrawal.
What Are the ‘Twisties’?
In an interview for NBC, Olympic gymnast Simone Biles shared that, to her horror, she was suffering from the ‘twisties’ right in the middle of the Olympic games. She first noticed that something was off with her brain the day after her qualification session. Since she had already gotten her spot in all of the six finals, she tried to push ahead for the first rotation of the team final.
Biles described the feeling as ‘getting lost in the air’. After several assessments, one of which included a consultation with a sports psychologist, it was clear that complex skills were out of the question. Fortunately, the people around Biles weren’t inclined to force her to keep competing against medical advice.
So, what are the twisties and why is it a big deal?
A former gymnast by the name of Catherine B. (@WittyNameChoice) took to Twitter to explain Biles’ side to non-gymnasts puzzling over what the mystical twisties are.
Her viral tweet thread details what it’s like to have the twisties for gymnasts. As an athlete continues to practice a skill, their brain forms neural connections that lead to what’s commonly known as muscle memory. Put simply, muscle memory is an almost automatic process where the body accomplishes movements that it’s been trained to do repeatedly. Gymnasts, whose routines can result in life-ending injuries with the slightest miscalculation, rely on their muscle memory to make split-second decisions for them when they spring into the air.
This disconnect between brain and body has been attested by gymnasts and psychologists, but it didn’t stop the resulting backlash that followed the wake of Simone Biles’ exit from the games.
All In Biles’ Head?: An Invisible Disability 101
There’s something in common between all the snide remarks about gymnast Simone Biles: they hinge on the assumption that because Biles’ condition is a matter of neurological problems and psychological stress, then it follows that it’s all in her head. Because it’s all in her head, the next assumption is that it isn’t serious. After all, only physical disabilities have any real impact on the body, making it possible for a gymnast to not be able to compete in the Olympics.
Disabilities and illnesses that aren’t seen, that are invisible, are perceived as being ‘not real’.
It’s the same belief behind the stigma against discussing mental health issues and it’s rooted in something called a ‘mind-body dualism‘. The physical part of who we are, that is, our bodies, is the only thing that can be publicly perceived. Based on what we see, we form and apply schemas about objects, people, animals, and events. These schemas are a complex web of first-hand experience and knowledge we pick up from other people. We can’t see schemas either but we can see how they affect the world around us, whether that’s innocuous typecasting or more malicious racial profiling.
For Biles, this mind-body split and the schemas we’ve formed about how people with disabilities or illnesses should look has made her the subject of personal attacks that say she shouldn’t be allowed to compete again for dishonoring her team or that she’s weak-willed.
People who suffer from invisible disabilities aren’t new to this backlash and ostracism. A physical therapist in her mid-20s that I’ve spoken with lamented, “Both my dad and I are disabled but we don’t look like it. We’ve experienced a lot of unpleasant things when we try to use our disability discounts and benefits. They won’t even accept looking at a disability card, they just look at us and say, ‘No.'”.
Her disability? Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, better known as ADHD. It’s a neurological disorder that affects impulse control and attentional regulation. For a long time, it was commonly believed that women couldn’t have ADHD, seeing as female ADHD sufferers often have inattentive, rather than hyperactive, symptoms. Disorderly, tantrum-throwing schoolboys are the poster child for the disorder, not young women with a college education, working in the medical field.
Another woman with ADHD described her childhood as a string of meetings at the principal’s office. The unwillingness of her teachers to wrap their heads around the fact that she was disabled had made her believe that she was actually “stupid and not trying hard enough”.
Of course, Simone Biles’ condition isn’t as permanent as that of people with neurodevelopmental disorders and is what some doctors would call a transient disability. No matter its relative shortness though, the twisties still make it impossible for Simone Biles to compete safely.
As one mother of two puts it, “I’ll dissociate sometimes because of bipolar disorder. Time passes by in a haze, I’ll forget that I haven’t picked up my son or I’ll forget where I am, who I am. It’s like walking through a thick fog but it’s in your head. My husband understands it but his parents don’t. They think I’m a terrible mother and that I’m a danger to my children because I’m ‘crazy’.”
She also describes herself as something of an Instagram mom, the kind who only feeds her kids organic food, meal preps on the weekends, and would homeschool her sons if she weren’t disabled. In a few days, she’ll be back to her regular old self, carefully tending to sons, a dog, and a vegetable garden. Though she’s grateful that she isn’t disabled 24/7, she does admit that her ability to function normally most of the time makes it harder to get people to understand that sometimes, she just can’t.
Whether permanent or transient, invisible or visible, disabilities still affect the way people with them live their lives.
Going for Real Gold
While people on the internet were busy lambasting Simone Biles and using Kerri Strug’s career-ending vault against her, other gymnasts quickly came to her defense. It’s a beautiful show of solidarity among people who understand. Most surprising of these is that Kerri Strug herself spoke up to give Simone Biles her support.
Dominique Moceanu, a member of the famous Magnificent Seven and a contemporary of Strug’s, had stronger words to say about Biles’ withdrawal. Like Strug, Moceanu had an accident during the 1996 Olympics that sent her plummeting from the balance beam, further damaging her already fractured tibia.
She shared in an interview with TODAY, “I didn’t even have anybody do a cervical spine X-ray at that time. Nobody ever checked it, and so right now, Simone is making a decision that could really be beneficial to her future. You have to know yourself and your body, and if you feel that fear of not having spatial awareness, you have to step back because these things are not cured overnight.”
Moceanu’s viral tweet, which included a clip of her devastating fall at the 1996 games, had nothing but admiration for Biles and the changing culture of the Olympics, “Simone Biles’ decision demonstrates that we have a say in our own health, a say I never felt I had as an Olympian.”
Really, what’s there to not be proud of?