Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 29, 2021

Simone Biles’ Most Daring Move

For all the attention paid over a fortnight, the Olympic Games rarely contribute moments to the lasting lore of sports.  That’s partly from a lack of opportunity, for in the long interval between every intense two weeks of these quadrennial Games there are thousands of contests and millions of moments, at all levels, of the sports holding regular places on the yearly calendars of fans.  It’s also because outside the context of a Summer or Winter Olympiad, many of the events are niche sports with limited appeal when unattached to the familiar five ring symbol.  Yes, more than four decades later we still recall the Miracle on Ice that took place at Lake Placid in 1980.  But just three years after the remarkable 2018 run of the U.S. men’s curling team to an equally improbable gold medal at PyeongChang, the hoopla that accompanied the feat by skip John Shuster and his squad from the Duluth Curling Club is all but forgotten, and there has been no nationwide surge of hockey rinks being converted to curling sheets. 

When an Olympic moment lasts it is often because of a particular connection between the athlete and the fan doing the recollecting.  So here at On Sports and Life the images of Billy Mills’ stunning 1964 upset victory in the 10,000 meters on the track in Rome are still clear, though the race was run more than half a century ago.  But that is not because of some passionate interest in distance running, nor because Mills was the first non-European to win the event and remains the sole American to capture gold at that distance.  Rather it is entirely because he was non-European in the truest sense.  An Oglala Lakota, Mills was a rare Native American atop the medal stand and thus remains entirely relatable to this writer.

The Tokyo Games are just approaching their halfway point, so it’s too soon to say whether any moment on the track or in the pool or at any of the various other venues will become lasting memories of either a handful of folks for very specific reasons or of sports fans in general because of their uniqueness.  But after Tuesday it is clear the Games of the XXXII Olympiad will be long be remembered for the courage of one young woman.

In the months leading up to these Olympics, through the U.S. Classic in May, the national championships in early June, and the Olympic trials soon after, much of the talk about the incomparable gymnast Simone Biles focused on the difficulty of her moves.  Biles herself, joined by a growing chorus of pundits and fans, contended that moves like the Yurchenko double pike in vault, something that no woman had ever performed in competition until she did so, were being purposely underscored by judges.  Gymnastics scores are split between the quality of execution and the degree of difficulty.  The increasingly loud complaint has been that the Yurchenko and some of Biles’ other signature moves on various apparatuses haven’t been awarded appropriate degree of difficulty scores, in part to keep competitions close but mostly because the complexity, and thus the risk of injury, was so great officials wanted to discourage anyone else from attempting them. 

But on Tuesday in Tokyo, Biles chose to do something far more difficult and riskier than hurtling her body through multiple midair twists and spins.  After an uneven performance in the preliminaries – by the standards of a gymnast who has won the all-around and dozens of individual golds at every world championship meet she has entered since 2013 – Biles suffered what gymnasts refer to as the “twisties” during her first vault in the team finals, meaning she lost her orientation while in midair.  The result for an accomplished gymnast is often a devastating injury.  For Biles it was a poor finish with a bad stumble.  But it led her to acknowledge a reality she had previously hinted at on social media, namely that the enormous weight of expectations and celebrity had become too great.  Citing the need to protect her mental health, Biles withdrew from the remainder of the team competition, and one day later pulled out of the individual all-around.

For some observers of our games, those who are fearless provocateurs so long as they can hide behind anonymous usernames on social media, but especially for those who believe that the athletic stars of all our sports are but sentient fodder who exist only to provide them with entertainment, Biles’ action was self-indulgent, or weak, or the latest example of American decline.  The long public record of some of the harshest assailants leaves no doubt that their vitriol would have been tempered if their target’s name was Simon rather than Simone, or if her skin tone could be described as alabaster, or both.  But the fundamental failure to appreciate or even acknowledge the humanity of our sporting heroes is not limited to misogynists and racists. 

By standing down from competition to stand up for her own wellbeing, Simone Biles took on all of them.  Happily, it turns out she did not do so alone, for she has received widespread support, from her teammates, other athletes, many in the media, and countless fans.  But unlike virtually any acute ailment, for much of society mental health remains a taboo subject for open discussion, so she could not possibly have known that such support would be forthcoming, though she surely knew that those predisposed to hate would be ready to pounce.

Then again, at the age of 24, Biles has survived the predation of Larry Nassar and weathered the lack of support from her sport’s dysfunctional governing body for years.  The predictable bleating of mindless trolls would hardly have stopped a woman with that much courage and resilience from taking the greatest risk of all.

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