Olympic Refusal:
Simone Biles and Herbert Marcuse

An interesting take on Simone Biles’s exit from the Tokyo Olympics from Casey Gerald in the Guardian:

America has always asked Black people to give everything we’ve got and then give what we don’t have. And if we did not give it, it was taken wilfully – plundered, as Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote.

Biles’s courageous decision echoes the actions of other Black public figures, from Naomi Osaka to Leon Bridges, who are refusing to sacrifice their sanity, their peace, for another gold medal or another platinum record. They are helping us all build a new muscle, helping us put one simple word at the top of our vocabulary: no.

Some might wrongly view this refusal as a symptom of millennial dysfunction and entitlement. The truth is that many of us came of age against the backdrop of 9/11 and the pyrrhic “war on terror”. We entered the workforce in the midst of the Great Recession. We cast our first votes for a Black president, only to then witness a reign of terror against Black people, young and old, at the hands of the state. (Not to mention the traumatic four years under our last president, who dispatched troops to brutalize peaceful protests for Black lives.) We are tired. We are sad. As the brilliant musician and producer Terrace Martin, perhaps best known for his work with Kendrick Lamar, told me recently: “I don’t know anybody sleeping well.”

I’m reminded of that great scene in the film Network, when the unstable newscaster convinces viewers all over the country to rush to their windows and scream out into the street: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take this any more!” Might Biles’s act of deep and brave self-love spark the largest wave of refusal in the history of this country? I believe it’s possible.

We are, I believe, witnessing the beginning of a great refusal, when a generation of Black Americans decide to, in the words of Maxine Waters, reclaim our time. Simone Biles, famous for what she does in the air, has shown the way by standing her ground.

The criticisms of this position are predictable, and Piers Morgan has already come out to predictably ridicule Biles’ exit, both highlighting the apparent relinquishment of her responsibility, whilst at the same time epitomising the hysterical levels of pressure put on these individual athletes, apropos of nothing:

Then Biles said something really extraordinary and illuminating: ‘I feel like I’m also not having as much fun. This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself, but I came in and I felt like I was still doing it for other people. It hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.’

Sorry, WHAT?

You’re not just at these Games for yourself, Simone.

You are part of Team USA, representing the United States of America, and hundreds of millions of American people watching back home, not to mention all the sponsors who’ve paid huge sums to support you.

And when you quit, you were performing as part of a gymnastics team, not yourself.

It’s also not supposed to just be about having fun.

The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport – the ultimate test of any athlete. They’re supposed to be very hard and very tough, physically, mentally, and any other way you care to name.

Biles blamed social media for her new-found nerves and self-doubt.

Morgan, as ever, is extraordinary and illuminating all on his own. Of course, who cares what he has to say, but he surely epitomises precisely what is being refused.

Beyond the entertainment news drama, what is interesting about Gerald’s essay and Morgan’s diatribe is, of course, that it emboldens this sense of a “Great Refusal” first put forth by Herbert Marcuse in his discussions of May ’68. Though Marcuse’s argument is in favour of revolution, and the Olympics may seem more like the deferral of such sentiments than a rupture to the status quo, Biles’ exit from the competition does bear “the mark of social repression” — to quote Marcuse — “even in the most sublime manifestations of traditional culture”.

Though its political impact may seem diffuse, it contains echoes of a wider rejection of capitalist work ethics and the social machine that implements it, affirming the Olympic Games not as the spectre of international quasi-capitalist competition but comradery and teamwork across “national frontiers and spheres of interest”. To quote Marcuse once more, it is an action shadowed by

the specter of a revolution which subordinates the development of productive forces and higher standards of living to the requirements of creating solidarity for the human species, for abolishing poverty and misery beyond all national frontiers and spheres of interest, for the attainment of peace.

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