There has been a rumour doing the rounds in Tokyo. The kind passed along in hushed tones and dismissed immediately by the listener, who goes on to swill that around before passing it on to the next close contact.
Simone Biles, you see, is not perfect. In her first appearance at these Olympics on Sunday, she stuttered. There was bounding out of the competition area of the floor after an overzealous tumble. Stepping off the mat following her vault. Needing three attempts to find her feet as she dismounted from the beam.
“Simone took three big steps on the beam dismount, I’ve never seen her do that before,” said US performance director Tom Forster. For the first time since 2010, the United States do not head into a major team final as leaders. That honour falls to the Russian Olympic Committee. As for those six gold medals headed Biles’s way? Those projections might have been over the top.
As we enter into the business end of the artistic gymnastic schedule, starting with the team event on Tuesday evening local time, it is probably worth saying a few things out loud. The broader field is more competitive than ever, in part because of the progression that comes from chasing a dominant USA women’s programme. The Russians, by any other name, remain an ever-lurking threat, driven by their latest standard-bearer, 21-year old Angelina Melnikova.
And as for Biles, well, the quest for six was always a bit of a long shot. In plain terms, taking five would make her the first female gymnast to achieve the feat at an Olympics. Vitaly Scherbo, competing for the Unified Team in 1992, is the only man to achieve six.
That may read as foolishly placing restrictions on a transcendent talent. But there are the odd limitations to her brilliance - ones, it should be said, are only obvious because of a mixture of uncapped talent and a penchant for the most difficult set-pieces. The four bankers are team, all-around, vault and floor – the ones she took home at Rio 2016. The balance beam is uncertain, and success in the uneven bars relies on under-performance from others.
We always get to this juncture in an Olympics. When, after months of imagination and expectation running wild, they come to a juddering halt, staring into each other’s eyes and wondering if they are about to take very different paths. Every games has a blockbuster narrative that does not quite come to pass. Biles might be Tokyo 2020’s.
None of this, by the way, is on her. She is merely a victim of the hopes we place on the sports stars that come along and change the game. After appreciation of reaching previously unscaled heights, those achievements become the broader things that have “been done”, not just by them. Now do more. Run faster. Go further. Be stronger. Jump higher.
Biles, of course, wants to achieve all six. Gymnastics is ultimately the pursuit of perfection, and it makes sense that the most perfect of all time wants the cleanest of sweeps.
But whether a statement of grandeur is forthcoming, Biles will move on from these games as the phenomenon she walked in as, no matter how many honours she adds to the 30 Olympic and world medals already in her possession. And, if she does call it quits at the end of Tokyo 2020, her legacy will be so much more than whatever decoration is placed around her neck. So much more now rides on her name than simply gymnastics.
It was a month after the Rio 2016 Games that the first woman came forward to say she was sexually abused by Larry Nassar, a team physician for USA Gymnastics.
Around 350 more victims were forthcoming, including Biles, who took to Instagram in January 2018 to tell her story. It was at that point, having summoned the courage to stand up, that she decided to take on the struggle for others. Harnessing her profile, she forced the governing body into action simply by using her voice.
It was too much of a coincidence that only when she refused to go to the Karolyi Ranch training complex, where Nassar committed many of his crimes, did the USA sever ties with the compound. The gymnastic centre was eventually closed down at the start of 2018. Similarly, she has been key to some more high-profile exits off the back of the abuse investigation.
Over the last 18 months, she has taken it upon herself to wear her black excellence more overtly. The importance of that at a time when blackness comes under more scrutiny than ever cannot be understated. She occupies a higher plane alongside Naomi Osaka and LeBron James whereby their statements around racism and social injustice accost prime time and space on every news cycle. Biles’s work and her visible presence in this stratosphere, as a black woman in a position of self-made power, has a reach she admits she cannot comprehend but knows full well its value.
It is why though there was talk of a potential retirement at the end of this cycle, she has reiterated that she cannot relinquish the responsibility being an active champion has brought her. She is wary that, should she walk away, USA Gymnastics and the country’s Olympic and Paralympic Committee may be able to sweep some of the last four years under the carpet. Perhaps even renege on the overdue work they have been doing to make the sport safer and support the hundreds of victims.
All this while Biles admits it continues to take a toll. When the Games were delayed in 2020, she spoke openly of having to contend with the worst parts of the organisations she operates under for another year. Following Sunday’s missteps, she took to social media to vent.
“I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times," Biles said on Instagram. "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!"
Arguably her most impressive balancing act is wearing these burdens heavily enough so they are taken seriously while using them to fuel everything she does in the arena. Even for those outside the States, she has made the sport more appealing and spread a message of solidarity and power throughout the global ranks.
These next seven days may see her standing as an athlete rise to another level. But even between Olympic competitions, she has taken gymnastics in a meaningful way by empowering its gymnasts. No amount of gold medals will come close to quantifying that.
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