The Radical Courage of Simone Biles’s Exit from the Team USA Olympic Finals
Biles’s decision not to compete on Tuesday is, to many spectators, a heartbreak. It is also a welcome example of an athlete setting her own limits.
By Eren OrbeyJuly 27, 2021
USA Gymnastics was already on the wrong foot entering the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday morning. Over the weekend, Simone Biles had stumbled during the qualifying rounds, bouncing not just out of bounds but off the mat after her second-to-last floor pass and flubbing landings on the vault and the beam. The U.S. women qualified in second place, behind Russia. Still, there was hope that, as in the past, they would end up indomitable in finals competition, in large measure because of Biles, who is rightly recognized as the greatest athlete in the sport’s history. Her skills, especially on the vault, are so advanced that the International Gymnastics Federation has scored their difficulty levels conservatively, for fear of incentivizing other athletes to put themselves in danger following her lead. The American women have not lost an international team meet since 2010, and, in recent years, Biles’s success has allowed them to win competitions by entire points in a sport often determined by tenths or hundredths. “I don’t think it’s going to come down to tenths of a point in Tokyo,” Tom Forster, the U.S. high-performance director, told the press in June, after the Olympic trials.
So it was shocking, during the first rotation of Tuesday’s final, to realize that Biles had bailed midair on her standard vault, a two-and-a-half twisting Yurchenko, which she usually completes with ease. In flight, she appeared to lose track of her own motion, finishing just one and a half twists. She landed in a squat so deep that she almost sat on the mat, and then she took a hefty step forward. Her score, of 13.766, was the lowest showing of the three U.S. women who competed in that rotation. Entering the second rotation, the U.S. women were more than a point behind Russia—on what was supposed to be their strongest event. Biles was escorted off the floor by a trainer, and she returned, without grips, wearing a white sweatsuit over her leotard. News soon reached the stadium: she was withdrawing from the team competition “due to a medical issue,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement. Without Biles, the team’s chances at the gold quickly dwindled, and, in the end, they took the silver. The Russian women finished first, by a margin of more than three points, securing their first Olympic team victory since the 1992 Games. (Great Britain, which had qualified in sixth, took the bronze.)More on the Olympics
Anyone who has followed the tumult of USA Gymnastics in recent years knows the immense, inhumane pressure that Biles and her teammates have borne. Since the revelations of Larry Nassar’s abuse, athletes say they have struggled to get reassurance, from both the sport’s governing body and the United States Olympic Committee, that their health and well-being is a priority. USA Gymnastics has relied on Biles to buoy its reputation in the midst of scandal and to boost its scores in international competition. At qualifications, despite several uncharacteristic errors, Biles finished first as an all-around competitor. (If she decides to compete in that final, on Thursday, she is still the favorite to win.) But, as the qualifying round revealed, counting on Biles as a buffer is not always enough to guarantee victory for the women’s team—nor should it be. On Monday, before the team final, Biles wrote on Instagram that she felt “the weight of the world” bearing down on her: “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!” The endless praise that Biles receives for her “superhuman” abilities can lead to a kind of dehumanization, enforcing an incessant expectation that she not only perform but outperform and a sense of bafflement in the rare instances that she doesn’t.
On Sunday night, NBC’s primetime broadcast of the women’s qualifications largely elided routines by Biles’s teammates and lingered on her mistakes, in an effort to explain Russia’s surprising lead. “The big reason?” Tim Daggett, a veteran commentator who competed in the 1984 Olympics, said. “Because Simone Biles is not being Simone Biles-like today.” And yet a remarkable element of Tuesday’s competition was the grace with which Biles’s teammates, a trio of first-time Olympians, collected themselves to complete the meet without their leader. Sunisa Lee, an eighteen-year-old, nailed a dizzying connection that she had missed on the uneven bars during qualifications and stuck her dismount, a full-twisting double tuck. Grace McCallum, also eighteen, anchored the team with clean routines on every apparatus. Perhaps the most moving competitor to watch was Jordan Chiles, a twenty-year-old, who had at one point considered quitting gymnastics after failing to qualify for an international roster. “I didn’t think the sport wanted me anymore,” she recently told the Times. Instead, she moved to Texas to train with Biles, and the duo—“Chiles and Biles,” as they have been called—established themselves as sisters on and off the floor. Last weekend, Chiles, too, made several errors in the Tokyo qualifications. But, on Tuesday, when Biles withdrew, Chiles readied herself at a moment’s notice and delivered a hit routine on the uneven bars. On the beam, in the next rotation, she maintained her poise, and wisely decided to end her routine with a simpler dismount, a double pike instead of a full-twisting tuck, to guarantee a steady performance.
In a conversation last week, the gymnast Aly Raisman, a two-time Olympian and a former teammate of Biles’s, told me, “Gold medals shouldn’t be the most important thing.” Gymnastics is a notoriously punishing sport: as Raisman explained, athletes are often encouraged, if not forced, to compete despite injuries. Perhaps the most famous athlete to do so was Kerri Strug, who, in the 1996 Olympic team final, performed a second vault on an injured ankle before being escorted off the mat by her coaches and by Larry Nassar, a team trainer at the time. That year, the U.S. women won gold, and the moment has since been mythologized as an exemplar of athletic grit. Today, though, Krug’s painful hop landing reads differently, less as a heroic sacrifice than as an unnecessary and essentially career-ending strain. To many spectators, Biles’s decision not to compete on Tuesday is a heartbreak, but it is also a welcome example of an athlete setting her own limits.
After Biles’s rocky vault performance, some observers speculated that she had been suffering from “the twisties,” a gymnast’s term for a loss of air awareness during routines. Continuing to compete in that state would have been downright dangerous; it’s easy to forget that the skills gymnasts strain to render seemingly effortless could, with even minor slips, leave them paralyzed or worse. At a press conference later in the morning, standing beside her three teammates, Biles said that she had exited the competition because the pressure had become too much. She cited as inspiration Naomi Osaka, the Japanese American tennis champion who withdrew from two Grand Slam tournaments earlier this year to prioritize her mental health. “We have to protect our minds and our bodies, and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said. Her withdrawal from the team final was not the handy victory that the public, or USA Gymnastics, was expecting from her at the Olympics. But it was its own kind of achievement, one that has the potential to affect the next generation of gymnasts more than any single medal could.