Simone Biles has been called “GOAT” – the “greatest of all time” – so many times that Twitter added a leotard-wearing goat emoji on her name’s hashtag (not to mention the glittering goat that’s part of the design of her actual leotard).
But now, after the gymnast’s stunning withdrawal from the team final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday due to the pressures she faced, it’s worth asking: Has all the light-hearted use of such a weighted term — of all time – been too much?
Experts say yes.
“I don’t like it,” Robert Andrews, a sports performance consultant who advised Biles for the 2016 Olympics, told Yahoo Life. “I think it’s misplaced, I think it’s been abused and I think it’s a big target for athletes’ backs.”
First a brief explanation of the acronym, which became a new entry in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary in 2018: it was first used in reference to Muhammad Ali, although usually abbreviated to ‘the Greatest’ and by his wife Lonnie in 1992 as GOAT Inc. Hospitalized; it first appeared online in 1996, according to Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski, referring to basketball coach Penny Hardaway; in 2000, LL Cool J further popularized the use when he released it GOAT (greatest of all time), later to tell rolling stone, “Without Muhammad Ali, there would be no Mama Said Knock You Out and the term GOAT would never have been coined.”
In recent years, the use of the term as a way of praising athletes has really exploded used for sports superstar star including Tom Brady, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Naomi Osaka – as well as by Olympic commentators over the weekend in reference to Japanese gymnast Kohei Uchimura, just before the devastating slip of the high bar during the men’s qualifiers that essentially ended his career.
But perhaps no modern athlete has attached his name to “GOAT” more than Biles, as evidenced by the endless headlines and hashtags that call her that, even if the subject of the tweets and Article discusses the mental health pressures she faces.
So for the gymnast, according to Andrews, founder of the Houston-based Institute of Sports Performance advising athletes from four countries during the Tokyo Olympics: “It’s kind of a perfect storm: ‘the greatest of all time’, a dynamic and highly visible black athlete, an athlete who held USAG responsible and who, every time you turn on the TV or look at a magazine, there’s a picture of her.”
The situation, Andrews continues, “is called a diathesis stress model, and it means that for whatever reason there is a predisposition to it, and the stress levels have to reach a certain level and then the predisposition starts. It means she has a long time been under a lot of stress…the scales tipped and she’s unable to do things she normally can do in her sleep.”
Applying the term “GOAT” to someone like Simone Biles — a young woman in the midst of an active career — is part of what’s troubling about it, says sports performance psychologist Mark Aoyagi, a professor at the University of Denver and co-director of Sports & Performance Psychology. at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology. “An important point is that although ‘GOAT’ has been around for a while, it has always been applied retroactively. It was at the end of an athlete’s career that they got that mantle. It is now used increasingly earlier in the career … even applied to people who might be halfway through their careers,” he tells Yahoo Life.
And that, Aoyagi adds, is a problem. “It’s one thing to be anointed after you’re done playing, and quite another to have that said about you while you’re still playing, still performing. And contributing exponentially to that is that social media is now a platform for everyone to share their evaluation and opinions.” That combination — of GOAT that applies to current athletes and is also amplified by “voices of the masses,” he says, creates extreme pressure.
Massachusetts sports psychologist and coach Elizabeth Ward agrees, telling Yahoo Life, “I think it definitely adds to the push to be considered the greatest of all time. We hear it a lot with Tom Brady in football, and I think there [Biles] is, 24, and that’s a very different phase of her career than where Brady is with his career.”
Of course Biles does wear a goat on her leotard, Ward notes, and while she’s enjoyed the elation to some extent, it seems to have gone too far. “I think people can handle a certain amount of stress in their lives, and sometimes it can uplift and inspire them, and it’s a very individual comparison,” she says. “But too much of it isn’t good at all… So maybe she liked it or inspired her or pushed her in the beginning, but then to get Twitter out with an emoji, and to all social media all over the world to have world [supporting it], and expectations on her” was exaggerated.
But, Ward adds, it was brave to admit that and then bow to Biles. “For her to pass the baton to the other three teammates and step aside and encourage them,” she says, “I think it sets her apart as a very special, confident, remarkable 24-year-old athlete.”
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