"God Asks of You: Submit"
There is one big, interesting story coming out of the Olympics that I wanted to comment on.
No, it's not Simon Biles.
Biles has been hailed at the world's greatest female gymnast, and with good reason—she already had 4 Olympic gold medals and five world championships—and she was expected to lead this year's US team to a gold medal. Yet she withdrew from the team competition halfway through, and the American ladies won silver, finishing second after the Russian Olympic Committee.
But this is not a big story. Something like it happens at every Olympics. The press plays up an athlete as the big star of the games, and he or she underperforms. It's nobody's fault. Sports are hard, elite-level sports are really hard, and absolutely nothing is as hard as the Olympics. It's very easy for a top athlete to show up for the big event and just not have it in them on this particular day.
But the state of the world being what it is, we had to have a miniature Simone Biles Culture War. Conservative idiots called her a quitter who failed to do her selfless duty for national glory, while people on the left dutifully took the bait and proclaimed that her withdrawing from the competition was "more impressive than winning" because it strikes a blow for some social cause or other. I don't know exactly which social cause because when I realized the article was veering in that direction, I couldn't bring myself to keep reading.
You get the idea. First software ate the world, then social media at the world, and now, as a result, the permanent, free-floating, nonstop culture war is eating the world.
The actual story is much more prosaic. The only interesting thing written about Biles' withdrawal (she subsequently came back for a bronze medal on balance beam) is this article which describes "the twisties," the equivalent in gymnastics of "the yips," a slang term for "a sudden and unexplained loss of skills in experienced athletes."
Complex athletic skills involve the training of reflexes on the subconscious level, and such skills are easily lost for reasons that are difficult to ascertain. It is amazing that anyone can do this sort of thing in the first place, so it requires no extraordinary explanation when they can no longer do it.
So no, this is not a big story and not the basis for a new culture war, so everybody knock it off.
The story I actually wanted to comment on is the case of the Belarussian sprinter who had to flee the games and seek asylum in Poland after being threatened by her own coaches and by the dictatorship pulling their strings.
Krystsina Tsimanouskaya's crime was to criticize her coaches and by extension the regime they serve. She was planning to run the 200-meter sprint and found herself also scheduled for the 4 x 400 meter relay without her knowledge or permission, because the Belarussian Olympic team had failed to ensure that its other runners completed the necessary drug tests. Why is this so egregious? Because the Russians (and their allies) are still under suspicion after being suspended from the Olympics after widespread and flagrant use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2014. (That's why the Russian team at this year's Olympics is not called "Russia" but the "Russian Olympic Committee" and completes under the Olympic flag.) So if the Belarussian team didn't complete all the tests for some of its athletes, I think we're entitled to be suspicious as to the reason why.
At any rate, Tsimanouskaya complained about the extra assignment. Athletes work carefully to reserve their strength for their best event, which can be diminished by having to run another race beforehand, so such decisions are usually negotiated beforehand between the athlete and the team. But jingoistic dictatorships have thoroughly adopted the attitude that conservatives commenters wanted to take toward Biles: The good of the individual athlete does not matter, all that matters is the glory of the nation and of the regime.
So when Tsimanouskaya complained, she was summarily dropped from the team, all her races were canceled, and she was ordered to return home. Fearing that if she returned she would never be allowed to compete again—or that she would suffer worse punishment—she sought asylum at the airport and has since been granted it in Poland. In the meantime, her husband fled to Ukraine, a reminder of why Ukraine's independence from Kremlin control sticks in Vladimir Putin's craw: It is a readily available refuge for dissidents.
None of this is all that new and is just a throwback to the bad old days of the Soviet sports system, which existed solely to win international prestige for the regime in the hope that this would distract people from its crimes.
But here's what is philosophically interesting about this case: the argument given to Tsimanouskaya by her coaches. Here is a translation of a recording she made of the conversation. What drew my attention was this line: "Put your pride aside, looks at what it's doing to you, God asks of you: submit. Well, we are asking you to do that. Submit."
Isn't it interesting how seamlessly the ethics of religion is adapted serve the needs of dictatorship?
This is a story that is far more relevant to today's culture wars, because it's a reminder of how much the two seemingly opposed sides—traditional religion and the secularized collectivist version—are derived from one another.