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Why calling athletes like Simone Biles ‘GOAT’ is too much pressure, experts say

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·5 min read
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Simone Biles has been so widely dubbed “GOAT” — the “greatest of all time” — that Twitter has added a leotard-wearing goat emoji to the hashtag of her name (not to mention the sparkly goat that's part of the design of her actual leotard).

But now, following the gymnast’s stunning withdrawal from the team final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday due to the pressure she was facing, followed by her announcement that she would also not take part in the all-around competition on Thursday, it’s worth asking: Has all the breezy use of such a weighted term — of all time — been too much?

Simone Biles, whose leotard bears a goat, seen just before competing in the floor exercise during the Senior Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in June in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Simone Biles, whose leotard bears a goat, seen just before competing in the floor exercise during the Senior Women's competition of the 2021 U.S. Gymnastics Championships in June in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Experts say yes.

"I don't like it," Robert Andrews, a sports performance consultant who counseled Biles before the 2016 Olympics, tells Yahoo Life. "I think it’s misplaced, I think it's misused and I think it puts a big target on athlete's backs."

First, a quick 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, though typically shortened to "the Greatest," and incorporated as GOAT Inc. by his wife Lonnie in 1992; it first appeared online in 1996, according to Merriam-Webster editor Peter Sokolowski, referring to basketball coach Penny Hardaway; in 2000, L.L. Cool J further popularized the usage when he released G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time), later telling Rolling Stone, "Without Muhammad Ali, there would be no 'Mama Said Knock You Out,' and the term G.O.A.T. would have never been coined."

In recent years, employing the term as a way to laud athletes has really exploded, being used for sports superstars including Tom Brady, LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Naomi Osaka — as well as by Olympics commentators over the weekend in reference to Japan gymnast Kohei Uchimura, just moments before the devastating slip from the high bar during men's qualifications that essentially ended his career.

But perhaps no modern-day athlete has had their name attached to "GOAT" more than Biles, as evidenced through the endless headlines and hashtags which call her that, even when the topic of the tweets and articles is discussing the mental-health pressures she's faced.

So for the gymnast, according to Andrews, founder of the Houston-based Institute of Sports Performance through which he's 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 has held USAG accountable and who, every time you turn on the TV or look at a magazine, there's a picture of her."

Kohei Uchimura of Japan pictured after competing on — and slipping from — the horizontal bar. He, like Simone Biles, is frequently referred to as the
Kohei Uchimura of Japan pictured after competing on — and slipping from — the horizontal bar at the Tokyo Olympics. He, like Simone Biles, is frequently referred to as the "GOAT." (Photo: REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

The situation, Andrews continues, "is called a diathesis-stress model, and it means that for whatever reason, there's a predisposition for this, and the stress levels have to get to a certain level and then the predisposition kicks in. It means she's been handling a lot of stress for a long time… the scale tipped and she's not capable of doing things that she can usually 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 sport-performance psychologist Mark Aoyagi, University of Denver professor and co-director of Sport & Performance Psychology at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology. "An important point is that, while 'GOAT' has been around for a while, it was always applied retrospectively. It was at the end of an athlete's career that they were given that mantle. It's now being used earlier and earlier in an athlete's career… even applied to people who might be mid-career," he tells Yahoo Life.

A young fan holds a sign with an image of a goat and a quote from Simone Biles during the final day of women's competition in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for gymnastics in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S., June 27, 2021. Picture taken June 27, 2021. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A young fan holds a sign with an image of a goat and a quote from Simone Biles during the final day of women's competition in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for gymnastics in St. Louis, in June. (Photo: REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson)

And that, Aoyagi adds, is a problem. "It's one thing to be anointed that after you're done playing, and quite another to have that said about you while you’re still playing, still performing. And what exponentially adds to that is that now social media is a platform for everyone to share their evaluation and opinions." That combination — of GOAT applying to current athletes while also being amplified by "voices of the masses," he says, creates extreme pressure. 

Massachusetts-based sports psychologist and coach Elizabeth Ward agrees, telling Yahoo Life, "I think it definitely adds to the pressure, 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 points out, and while she may have enjoyed the exultation to a point, it seems to have gone too far. "I think people can handle a certain amount of stress in their lives, and sometimes it can elevate and inspire them, and it's a very individual equation," she says. "But too much of it is not a good thing whatsoever… So maybe she liked it or it inspired her or pushed her at first, but then to have Twitter come out with an emoji, and to have all of the social media around the world [supporting it], and the expectations on her" became overkill.

But, Ward adds, for Biles to admit that and then bow out was courageous. "For her to pass the baton to the other three teammates and step aside, and cheer them on," she says, "I think it sets her apart as quite a special, self-aware, remarkable 24-year-old athlete."

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