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The Iliad and Olympic Gymnastics

Homer’s epic poem provides a frame for watching Simone Biles and Suni Lee in Tokyo.

After Simone Biles ignited controversy with her decision to pull out of much of the Olympic Games, fellow American gymnast Suni Lee extinguished some of the rhetorical fires by taking gold in the all-around individual competition. Taking on some of the burdens formerly shouldered by Biles, she put to rest the growing fear that the U.S. had lost its competitive spirit.

Unfortunately, due to the lack of interest in the actual games, many people will likely remember the controversy of Biles more than the greatness of Lee or the impressive performance of Rebeca Andrade, who won silver, Brazil’s first medal ever in the sport. Most will recount how some on the left tried to turn Biles into a kind of Civil Rights icon while some on the right vilified her as a “selfish sociopath.” Perhaps a few will mention in passing that Lee’s gold two days later was a nice lift to what had become a rather dismal beginning to an underwhelming Olympic Games.

This is a shame. The excellence on display is what people should seek in the Olympics rather than controversy. They are not mere mortals playing a game. They are near superhumans competing in an epic struggle for the whole world to witness and experience. As David Foster Wallace wrote in his essay “Federer as Religious Experience,”

Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we’re talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.

The stories of Biles and Lee closely mirror the stories of Homer’s war epic, the Iliad. The Iliad centers on the Greek army besieging the Asia Minor city of Troy, stuck in a decade-long standoff. On both sides of the battlefield are heroes with divine ancestry, each beseeching the gods for some advantage as they periodically clash in battles that fail to decide anything.

The protagonist of the Iliad is Achilles, a hero and son of a goddess, an indomitable warrior who leads by example. He is peerless on the battlefield and almost has the power the single-handedly push the Greeks to victory. Moreover, his superiority is not just the result of his parentage, but also of a choice he made to opt for a short life filled with glory over a long life in obscurity.

For this reason, his perspective on the Trojan War is altogether different from the other warriors. Having achieved greatness already and fully confident in his superiority to other men, he has little to gain from continuing to fight. Sure, he can win even more glory and even push the Greeks to victory, but this will all come to an end quite soon before he could ever hope to enjoy it.

It is probably more for this reason than the pretext he gives that late in the war, Achilles suddenly refuses to fight anymore. The official explanation Achilles gives for sitting out of the war is that the greatly inferior Agamemnon dishonored him by taking one of his war prizes, the concubine Briseis. This has the effect of plunging Achilles into a deep depression that causes him to resent everything and everyone, even as they beg him to return to battle.

Simone Biles shares many of the same qualities as Achilles. Giving her life to the sport, she has become what is widely considered the greatest gymnast to ever compete in the Olympics, performing maneuvers that are beyond the abilities of even the most elite of her fellow gymnasts. She has already achieved greatness, leaving her in a similar existential quandary to Achilles. She could go and win another gold, but what would be the point of it? When asked why she quit, it was telling that she continued giving vague responses about mindfulness and not feeling right.

Both Achilles and Biles also have a counterpoint. In Achilles’s case, it is Hector, son of the Trojan king Priam. Prince Hector fights for all the right reasons and is the strongest warrior on the field after Achilles. When Achilles withdraws, he leads a charge that drives the Greeks back to their boats on the shore. In Biles’s case, Suni Lee is the counterpoint who steps onto the mat to become America’s champion after Biles quits. She competes against a strong and equally admirable opponent, the Brazilian Rebeca Andrade, and makes her country proud.

Fortunately, the parallels between the Homeric and modern American epic end at this point. Teammates, Biles does not resent Lee or the rest of the Americans, but rather cheers them on while she sits on the sidelines. But in the Iliad, after his friend Patroclus dies to Hector, Achilles comes out of retirement to slaughter a great mass of Trojans, including Hector. Still angry, he drags Hector’s corpse around the walls of Troy, taunting the Trojans who watch in horror.

Achilles’s character will always prompt arguments among readers, as did the decision of Biles. While Achilles’s refusal to fight seems self-serving and petty, his sheer excellence forces everyone to reevaluate this easy criticism. His ways are not the ways of normal people, and his reasons are deeper than our understanding of the ones he gives. The same can be said of Biles, who is not an attention-seeking mediocrity like Colin Kaepernick or a whiny, vain superstar like LeBron James. Something more than nerves or activist publicity moved her to quit, and it is unreasonable to expect her to explain herself to our satisfaction.

Similarly, Hector and Lee warrant discussions as well. Hector does everything right only to be completely humiliated by Achilles, and Lee has won gold only to still somehow stand in Biles’s shadow. Was doing the right thing by society’s standards really the best way to go? Will the glory they win truly compensate them for the sacrifices they’ve made up to this point?

It doesn’t accomplish anything to take a side on these questions. Doing so denies the characters their complexity and downplays the greatness of their struggle. It’s immature and obtuse to identify as Team Achilles, Team Hector, Team Biles, or Team Lee. Rather, we are all Team Humanity, celebrators of human excellence, and this story is yet another reminder of this important truth.

Whatever else comes out of these Olympics, we should recognize that Simone Biles and Suni Lee are both great athletes. Their stories are epic. Like the Iliad’s heroes, their internal and external conflicts are simultaneously superhuman and human. Like good readers, we should humble ourselves and acknowledge their excellence and the accompanying drama, not only allowing them to inspire us to overcome our own struggles, but also enlightening us as we reflect upon our shared human nature.

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an MA in Humanities and an MEd in Educational Leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American ThinkerCrisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.

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