Colin Sheridan: Simone Biles shows we’ve come a long way since ‘Lay Down Sally’

Colin Sheridan: Simone Biles shows we’ve come a long way since ‘Lay Down Sally’

Simone Biles during a training session at the Ariake Gymnastics Arena ahead of the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Richie Tenenbaum was the youngest child of the dysfunctional Tenenbaum clan in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film, The Royal Tenenbaums. 

He had been a tennis star, the viewer learns through flashbacks, known as “the Baumer”, until he fell apart at the US Nationals. He finishes his match against his opponent, Mr Gandhi, in tears, removing his shoes and serving underarm. The reason? The marriage the day before of his adopted sister, Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), with “That’s 72 unforced errors from Richie Tenenbaum who’s playing the worst tennis of his life”, the commentator tells us.

“What is he feeling now, Tag Hagler?”

“I don’t know Jim. there’s obviously something wrong with him. He’s taking off his shoes and one of his socks and, actually, I think he’s crying”.

In one, last desperate attempt to return a serve, he throws his racquet at the ball.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Tag.

“Strange days out there at Windswept Fields.”

Strange days indeed. Thankfully for Richie, he didn’t have to live down his decision to take off his shoes mid-point on social media. Nor did he take a slap in the jaw for his troubles.

Three years after the strange day at Windswept Fields, during the women’s eights rowing final at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the Australian team approached the final 400 metres when Sally Robbins stopped rowing and slumped backward, into the lap of her teammate Julia Wilson. Physically exhausted, she just... lay down. Her oar dragging in the water, Australia finished last by some distance.

The fallout was spectacular and immediate.

Moments after the race ended, teammates encouraged one another to punch Robbins while they were still in the boat.

On the shore, there was no “at the end of the day...” cliches during the post-race interviews.

“I just want to stress it was not a technical problem out there,” Wilson told reporters.

“There were nine in the boat. There were eight operating,”.

Seeing that Robbins was conducting her own post-race interview, Wilson called out “Don’t lie, Sally, don’t lie.”

The media quickly christened Robbins “Lay Down Sally”. A former teammate of Robbins, Rachel Taylor, wrote a withering open letter to the media. “Sunday was a repeat display of complete mental weakness, not ‘physical exhaustion’ as the media is reporting...”.

At the welcome home parade in Sydney, another teammate punched her in the face in public. For Australia, a self-proclaimed “proud” sporting nation Robbins’ moment of weakness was unpatriotic, borderline treachery.

It’s taken four Olympics and the sudden withdrawal of the greatest gymnast in history, Simone Biles, to reinforce the fickleness of both the human mind and, crucially, the mob.

While Robbins was no Biles, she was an exceptional athlete who was selected to compete at an Olympics in a sport that is physically brutal, for a team that expected to medal.

Her teammates could be forgiven for being angry. The public, who had never known a callus on their hand, circled like buzzards.

Biles told reporters that on Tuesday when she took off from the vault, “I had no idea where I was in the air,” disorientation that prompted her to put back on her warm-up suit, cheer on her teammates to a silver medal, and remain on the sidelines indefinitely.

“I can’t risk a medal for the team, so I need to call it,” Biles said, explaining her decision-making. “And you usually don’t hear me say things like that, because I’ll usually persevere and push through things — but not to cost the team a medal.”

Answering another question that day, she said: “It just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head.”

Her decision was thankfully met with more applause than derision, hinting at some lessons learned from the recent Naomi Osaka debacle, but those who criticise her do so clinging on to some Churchillian version of fortitude as outdated as the plaid sweaters they undoubtedly wear.

They miss the point. It’s the “fighting with your own head” that makes the whole so compelling. Attitudes have changed since Sally lay down in the boat, but the landing has yet to be nailed.

Death, taxes, and Mayo in Croke Park

For all the noise that surrounds Dublin being allowed to play all of their games all of the time in front of their beloved fans on Hill 16, the time has surely come to handicap or at least evaluate what it is that makes Mayo play the way they do in the capital.

Last Sunday, in front of 18,000 people, they played an anomalous Connacht final against Galway, and for 15 minutes before half-time looked for all the world that their race — one that has lasted 10 years — was run.

Journeys like Mayo’s can’t just end, either, they have to spectacularly blow up.

Galway were the perfect villain, the handsome evil twin if you will, primed to pull the trigger.

Yet, once the pre-break storm was weathered, Mayo became themselves again and made Galway look very naive and ordinary, and themselves like — dare I say it — contenders. With talisman Cillian O’Connor out for the season, expectations were low.

The emergence of Ryan O’Donoghue as a scoring threat and the continued progress of Tommy Conroy and Matthew Ruane has softened the blow of losing players like Chris Barrett, Seamus O’Shea, and O’Connor.

James Horan has once again tapped into his formula of taking young, raw talent, and having them become greater than the sum of their parts.

Dublin await. It may end the way we think it will, but with Mayo, it won’t be dull.

Silence is golden for sage Sam Bennett

Lest anyone may doubt which side of the Sam Bennett/Patrick Lefevere spat to be on, the Deceuninck–Quick-Step boss punctured both wheels of his racer spectacularly at the weekend by likening the Waterford man’s imminent return to the Bora–Hansgrohe team as similar to “women who return home after domestic abuse”.

His latest outburst has come after continuously questioning Bennett’s mental state — “for me, he is the pinnacle of mental weakness”, he wrote in the same article, in which he picked through those riders under his charge he believed to be strong, and those he thought not.

Bennett, who has not raced since May and looks increasingly unlikely to do so for the rest of the season, has wisely chosen silence, leaving Monsieur Lefevere to dig his own hole. Let’s be thankful he’s not at the Olympics. The honest reaction of some athletes to pressure would leave him incandescent.

Oh be still my beating (Lion)heart...

The British and Irish Lions suffered a critical blow in their battle for hearts and minds last Saturday, succumbing to South Africa in a game that will be used as method of rendition in off-the-book sites all over the world for generations to come.

The first half, which finished late on Saturday night, will have done little to stir imaginations.

Redemption beckons next Saturday, but only if the hands are softer and dancing feet are permitted to dance. It’s better for everyone that they do.

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