Simone Biles

I’ve been a gymnastics fan for a very long time – since Brandy Johnson was the best US gymnast.  (Think mid-80s.)  My sister and I were very passionate fans in the mid-90s in particular – Lilia Podkapaeva, Simona Amanar, Shannon Miller, Mo Huilan, Gina Gogean, even Svetlana Khorkina.  (We were not fans of Khorkina.  And even less Svetlana Boginskaya!  And can we all agree that the orphan from the Ukraine was overscored from time to time?)

I started following Nastia Liukin when she was about 9, and was obviously thrilled to see her win all-around gold, though I like Shawn Johnson as well.  At that point, the gymnasts all started to run together a bit.

But Simone Biles is on another level.  She’s unambiguously the GOAT.  Not only is she the greatest of all time in women’s gymnasts, she’s one of those transcendent athletes that stand out among all the sports – like Michael Phelps or Michael Jordan.  She is exceptional among the exceptional and only a gymnastics fan can truly appreciate how extraordinary she is.  Not only does she do the hardest skills, she does them better than others.  She had a couple botched landings on the first day of the Olympics, and some people questioned her still being at the top of the standings, but a gymnastics fan knows that what happens in the air is just as important as what happens on the ground.  Most gymnasts will be just slightly piked, or go out of layout early, or land a little short.  Biles FLIES.  She just takes things to the next level.  And her skills ARE harder.

(It’s worth noting that the gymnastics code was changed about a decade ago to reward difficult skills over “perfection,” a change which made things a little less subjective, rewards athletes like Biles, and I think overall is very good for the sport.)

I’ve been watching the Olympics when I can.  (My class is still dominating my life, so I haven’t been able to watch as much as I’d like.)  I’ve been a little troubled by how often I’ve seen Biles featured for two reasons.  First, there’s been this attitude that she’s so much better than everyone else that she is guaranteed to win.  That’s not how gymnastics works, and the Olympics sees a lot of queens dethroned.  Second, and most importantly, it just seems like an impossible amount of pressure for her to bear, especially in combination with the Covid lockdown situation in Japan.  She can’t have any friends or family there with her to provide support.  I’ve honestly just found it troubling.  Couldn’t they spread the pressure around a little more?  Also, NBC is profiting off her, and she’s not getting paid for it.  She obviously has a lot of sponsorships that she does get paid for, but I still find it troubling.

Then, she had a little bit of a rough first night.  The US was in second, but honestly, that had a lot more to do with Jordan Chiles, who had a terrible night, than Biles.   But with all the pressure, was she just unable to handle being less than perfect?  She’s still so young – 24 – and she’s been built up as infallible.  She’s also bearing the weight of trying to change all of gymnastics from what has been basically an abusive system in which the athletes have no power, to one in which athletes have a voice.  And she’s had the ability to do that because she’s so good – more pressure.

When Simone Biles exited the arena, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team’s gold medal chances plummeted. The world’s best gymnast later returned to the sideline, but she withdrew from the competition for what USA Gymnastics cited as a “medical issue.”

Afterward, Biles made clear the issue was not physical.

“I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” she said.

As for whether she would compete again in Tokyo, where she is next scheduled to perform in Thursday’s all-around, Biles replied: “We’re going to see about Thursday. We’re going to take it a day at a time. I know tomorrow we have a little bit of a break for training, so that’ll be really nice to have a mental rest day. And then injury, no. Just my pride is hurt a little bit.”

I don’t know what she’s going through.  Perhaps she should have soldiered through for her team, even if it meant skipping the individual championship and event finals.   I do feel like she let down her teammates – not by making mistakes, but by electing not to compete.

With that said, we obviously don’t know what she’s going through.  She has one day off, and then it’s time for the individual championship.  I hope she’s able to compete.