Simone Biles is arguably one of the greatest Olympians to ever live. By several quantifiable measures, she’s the best gymnast. At 19 years old, she has already won more world championship gold medals than anyone, and is the first woman to ever win three consecutive all-around titles with a fourth potentially forthcoming. She is so good on the floor that many women wouldn’t attempt to do on their first pass what Biles can do on her third. And while floor is her best event, she is still the gold medal favorite on the balance beam and vault in Rio.
By being the most purely talented athlete on a star-studded women’s gymnastics team, she is also everywhere — the subject of hundreds of news segments, commercials, replays and interviews. Every detail of her life is available for consumption, and so of course it’s interesting to us that she comes from a relatively unique (though not that uncommon) background.
When Biles was five years old, she was adopted by her biological grandfather, Ron, and his wife, Nellie, because Biles’ biological mother, Shanon, was struggling with drugs and alcohol. Ron and Nellie are her parents. Biles considers them her parents. The eyes of the law consider them her parents. There should be no debate about this.
For some reason, there was some debate about this:
Al Trautwig has been in NBC’s announce booth for men’s and women’s gymnastics throughout the Olympics alongside Nastia Liukin and Tim Daggett. After a Sunday night profile about Biles on NBC, Trautwig said that Simone "was raised by her grandfather and his wife and she calls them mom and dad," making a sly semantic argument for some still-unknown reason. When he was called out, Trautwig doubled down in the since-deleted tweet up above, before saying Monday that he regrets his comment and stating definitively, "Ron and Nellie are Simone's parents."
Talking about the accomplishments of athletes is easy. There are a lot of ways to quantify performance, good and bad, even in a sport that is subjectively judged like gymnastics. It’s easy to talk about Biles, the gymnastics prodigy, because all anyone really has to do is gawk. Empathy isn’t required. An athlete can struggle and it can be pointed out, and we can glance over the fact that he or she is still capable of doing things that the average person never will.
Talking about the personal lives of athletes is trickier. The same rubric used to quantify accomplishment can, without care, slide onto things that ought not to be quantified, categorized or otherwise parsed for some sort of record. Questions on whether Biles’ grandparents are her real parents — or, say, why Colin Kaepernick doesn’t want to see his biological parents, or why athletes have opinions on anything happening in the world at all — aren’t the right questions, assuming anything should be asked at all.
Trautwig failed to empathize with Biles and her parents. In doing so, he touched on an issue many adoptive parents face. Via the Associated Press:
"If they are parenting her — that's what a parent does — don't diminish the role by calling them something other than her parents," said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council for Adoption. "Some of us would find that offensive."
Trautwig may not have meant to offend, but he did, and in doing so highlighted another big difference in how we talk about Olympians as people vs. athletes — an audience may not be able to relate to what they do in competition, but it sure as hell can relate to who they are. The debate about whether Biles is the greatest gymnast of all time encompasses a handful of people in human history. A debate about who her parents are encompasses millions of adopted people and adoptive parents throughout the world. The difference is an important lesson to anyone who has an amplified voice at the Olympics.