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Biles’ “Twisties” Roil Cursed Tokyo Olympics; Realignment Sows Distrust

The biggest story of these Tokyo2020 Olympic Games is “twisties.”

As gymnasts and divers describe it, flipping or twisting—or both—can be very confusing and disorienting to the human brain. It takes years of practice to develop the muscle memory needed to master these moves and maintain air awareness.

But sometimes, for even the best athletes, you lose trust in that muscle memory. It might be triggered by a fall, a few bad practices, or stress. You get lost in the air, second-guessing your moves, your instincts, your memory. You can’t tell up from down, where you are going to land. Suddenly, your confidence disappears and fear takes over. Fear of landing awkwardly on your head or back, breaking your neck, and suffering permanent injury or paralysis.

And so it was last week for Simone Biles, the world’s greatest gymnast, when she experienced the twisties, became disoriented in the air, and withdrew from the Olympic team and all-around competition as well as most individual events.

Biles didn’t choke. She didn’t embarrass herself or her country. She didn’t give up. She did the smart thing to protect herself.

Even if it meant losing millions of dollars in endorsements. Even if it meant her team might have to “settle” for a silver rather than a gold medal.

Of course, that didn’t stop some media types and politicians from accusing her of everything from being soft to being a traitor. In this era of cable news and social media, no one is immune from attack and ridicule.

Conservative flamethrower Charlie Kirk called Biles “a shameful sociopath” and opined we’re raising a “generation of weak people like Simone Biles.” British commentator Piers Morgan called her “selfish.” Fox News clown Tucker Carlson said she “betrayed her country.” The deputy attorney general of Texas called her a “childish national embarrassment.”

Never mind the fact that, in the words of my friend Ann Killion, none of these folks “could vault over a cheeseburger”.

No, Simone Biles isn’t soft. In fact, she’s won the nationals with broken toes in both feet, she’s won the worlds while fighting kidney stones. She experienced sexual assault from the U.S. team doctor.

But Biles was carrying the weight of the world on her 4’8” frame. She was the face of her team. The face of the Tokyo Olympics. The face of sexual assault survivors. And she was expected to perform perfect routines and easily win every event she entered.

Unlike a baseball player in a 162-game season or a quarterback supported by his offensive line and receivers, Olympic gymnasts are out there alone. With only one shot every four (or in this case, five) years.

For Biles, after eight years of perfection, it proved too heavy of a load to bear.

Sadly, Simone is far from alone in dealing with mental health issues. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, who has suffered from anxiety and depression, withdrew from the French Open in June and then skipped Wimbledon. Then last week, Osaka, the final torchbearer in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, lost in the third round in Tokyo.

Her loss triggered extensive criticism in the press and on social media, not only for letting her country down, but for being “hafu” (she is the Japanese-born daughter of a Haitian American father and a Japanese mother).

Another Olympic hero, swimmer Michael Phelps, and golfer Rory McElroy have both been very forthcoming about their battles with depression. Phelps says he considered suicide.

Hopefully, the experience of these sports stars will lead to a de-stigmatization of mental illness, an understanding of the importance of mental health, and a concerted effort to deal with these issues.

It would help immensely if there were less hate and venom on social media, but in this day and age, I think that’s too much to hope for.

Realignment Erodes Trust: For the past two years, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey sat next to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby as members of the four-man “working group” tasked with developing a proposal for expanding the College Football Playoff.

Sankey was a busy guy. While charting a course for a 12-team playoff that would open more spots for his conference, he was also plotting to poach the two marquee names in Bowlsby’s league—Texas and Oklahoma.

Last week the two schools were approved for membership in the SEC, creating a super conference of 16 teams and opening Pandora’s Box to a potential flood of moves by the other Power Five conferences. With a virtually powerless NCAA, the conferences have obviously decided to take matters into their own hands to determine the future of major college football.

With a little help from ESPN, I should note. The worldwide leader, which recently pried the SEC Game of the Week away from CBS, was apparently involved in the Texas/Oklahoma negotiations.

So Bowlsby, fearing further poaching, sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN alleging that the network is trying to break up his conference by encouraging other leagues to steal Big 12 schools.

ESPN owes the conference over $1 billion in rights fees through 2025, but would be off the hook if there was no Big 12. Oklahoma and Texas would like to leave the Big 12 as soon as possible, so if the conference goes away, they can depart without paying any exit fees.

It’s all very unsettling, with everyone assessing their situation, plotting their next move, and looking over their shoulder. “There is absolutely a pervading sense of mistrust right now throughout college athletics,” says respected ESPN columnist Heather Dinich.

Heather’s right. It’s every man for himself. The motivating factors are self-preservation and greed.

And it all started with a rather slimy play by Greg Sankey.

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Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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