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tara sullivan

There’s a double standard at work with Simone Biles and Novak Djokovic at the Olympics

Novak Djokovic smashes his racket during his loss in the bronze medal match in men's singles.
Novak Djokovic smashes his racket during his loss in the bronze medal match in men's singles.TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

Maybe it doesn’t resonate so much simply because it’s tennis, a sport whose regular headlines don’t come from the Olympics but from the four major tournaments that define its schedule. More likely it doesn’t resonate as much because men in sports are never judged for their emotional outbursts the way that women are.

Let’s face it, had Simone Biles acted the way Novak Djokovic did across the globe in Tokyo, the conversation would have been nowhere near as quiet as it is around the world’s best tennis player. It would have been exponentially louder than what already engulfed the world’s best gymnast after she withdrew from the team competition.

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That double standard (and more on it in a minute) is one of the many Olympic story lines that has resonated with me as the Games pass their midway point and sprint toward the finish line. From the dramatic and stressful to the triumphant and startling, with just about everything in between, all part of the beauty of these two-plus weeks.

Biles was the flashpoint early, and will be once again. As Biles prepped for a return to the mat as an individual in Tuesday’s morning balance beam event, Djokovic was long gone from Tokyo. But not before leaving one last tantrum on the sweltering court, one last bent racket hurled somewhere into the empty stands at Ariake Tennis Park, one mixed doubles teammate left without a chance to play for a medal, and one more entry into his growing catalog of outbursts, most notably an ejection from last year’s US Open after he hit a line judge with a ball.

Novak Djokovic smashes his racket during his bronze medal match against Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta.
Novak Djokovic smashes his racket during his bronze medal match against Spain's Pablo Carreno Busta.TIZIANA FABI/AFP via Getty Images

In case you missed it, Djokovic had been sailing through Tokyo, winning matches with ease in his quest for the Golden Slam, all while lapping up the Olympic experience — stopping for selfies, eating with the rowers, stretching with the gymnasts — clearly enjoying life in the athletes’ village. As he is the reigning Australian, French, and Wimbledon champ, a gold medal combined with a win in September’s US Open would have put Djokovic in rare tennis company, owning a calendar slam along with the once-in-four-years medal.

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But after advancing to the semifinals with yet another lopsided win over hometown hero Kei Nishikori, shutting him out in the second set while winning in 70 minutes, Djokovic crashed and burned. He lost the semis to eventual champ Alexander Zverev and then lost his composure in a grueling bronze medal loss to Spain’s Pablo Carreno Busta.

No shame in any of that; with the heat in Tokyo, with the compressed schedule, with the various injuries he deals with, the 34-year-old Djokovic was making it look far easier than it was.

But his actions on the way out — stomping in frustration, flinging his racket into the stands (where, mercifully, no fans sat), withdrawing from the mixed doubles bronze medal match and robbing teammate Nina Stojanovic of her chance at a medal — met with none of the vitriol that hit Biles after concerns for her safety and mental well-being led her to pull out of the team gymnastics event.

A politician in Texas (who doesn’t deserve to be named) called Biles a disgrace to her country, and pundits around the globe called her a quitter who bailed on her teammates, not understanding that Biles actually helped her team by removing what would have been such low scores in her events that the silver medal her teammates clinched would have been impossible to earn.

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Of course, Biles also earned praise for acknowledging her struggles, teaching us about the “twisties” (the phenomenon where gymnasts lose their place in the air and the one that Biles understood held such an injury risk) and opening a powerful discussion that sometimes it’s OK to say you’re not OK.

But it was Djokovic who only days before his own meltdown, when asked in light of what Biles had done how he deals with pressure, said this:

“Pressure is a privilege. Without pressure, there is no professional sport. If you are aiming to be at the top of the game, you better start learning how to deal with pressure. And how to cope with those moments on the court but also off the court, all the expectations.”

A glum Novak Djokovic departs the Ariake Tennis Center after his loss to Pablo Carreno Busta.
A glum Novak Djokovic departs the Ariake Tennis Center after his loss to Pablo Carreno Busta.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

And then he lost his senses. Seems like a good time to stop casting Serena Williams as the only tennis player who occasionally loses her temper on the court, and even more, to find a standard that applies equally to her and to someone like Djokovic.

How about the standard of sportsmanship shown by the two high jumpers who shared the gold medal? When Italian Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim followed parallel paths through the event, not missing on the way to clearing gold medal height but then missing all three jumps at the next level, officials huddled over what to do.

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A jump-off? No way. The men requested double gold instead, reminding us all of the true Olympic spirit of respect among competitors. Their hug was one felt around the world.

Gianmarco Tamberi (left) and Essa Barshim found a way to split the difference and both come out winners.
Gianmarco Tamberi (left) and Essa Barshim found a way to split the difference and both come out winners.INA FASSBENDER/AFP via Getty Images

Not as easy to jump on board with other celebrations, however, not if you listen to a few American swimmers (Lilly King, Ryan Murphy) and rowers understandably frustrated with the farce that is the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee. The slap on the wrist for systemic doping in Russia is an insult to all the work done by the World Anti-Doping Agency, whose recommended ban was reversed in an international appeals court.

It clearly emboldened the cheaters.

This stunning rebuttal was posted to Twitter by the Russian media rep: “How unnerving our victories are for some of our colleagues. Yes, we are here at the Olympics. Whether someone likes it or not. The old barrel organ started the song about Russian doping again. English-language propaganda, oozing with verbal sweat in the Tokyo heat. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. Forgive us those who are weaker. God is their judge. And for us — an assistant.”

So much for the notion of keeping politics out of the Olympics, huh? That was never going to happen.

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How could it, when you consider the case of two track athletes, one from the US and one from Belarus? While American shot putter Raven Saunders stood on her silver medal podium and crossed her arms in an X, which she said represented the intersection of all oppressed people, she got no blowback from her own Olympic committee, but support instead.

When Krystsina Tsimanouskaya questioned her coaches’ late decision to put her in a relay, apparently after some teammates weren’t available because of a testing snafu, she so feared retaliation from government officials that she refused to go home, getting the help of Japanese police when those officials tried to take her to the airport. She reportedly is getting humanitarian assistance in Poland, and her husband and child have also left Belarus.

This is why, according to a CNN story: “I am afraid that I might be jailed in Belarus,” Tsimanouskaya said in an interview with the Belarusian sports news site Tribuna on Sunday. “I am not afraid of being fired or kicked out of the national team. I’m concerned about my safety. And I think that at the moment it is not safe for me in Belarus. I didn’t do anything, but they deprived me of the right to participate in the 200-meter race and wanted to send me home.”


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.