To say Simone Biles is America’s greatest athlete is an undersell
Olympic star overcame a kidney stone and rare blunders at the Doha 2018 Worlds and still won a medal in every event. Her only competition is herself
We observers have long since exhausted the well of superlatives when it comes to Simone Biles. The 4ft 8in, 105lb sprite from suburban Houston had emerged as a once-in-a-lifetime talent even before her star-making coronation at the Rio Olympics, where she fulfilled her long-held promise with four gold medals in seven unforgettable days. Turns of phrase, margins of victory, records broken: these languages are entirely ill-suited for translating her unique physical genius, which, truly, must be seen to be believed. That Biles is the best athlete in America today, which she is, feels like an undersell.
Take her showing at last week’s world championships, where the 21-year-old became the first woman to win a fourth all-around world title and the most decorated female gymnast ever. The outcome itself was unremarkable: Biles has won every major team and individual all-around competition she’s entered since her senior career began in 2013, a dumbfounding run of consistency that prompted the sport’s cognoscenti to declare her the most talented gymnast in history before she’d competed in an Olympics.
What stood out was that Biles, one could reasonably argue, was having the worst big competition of her career – and she still won a medal in every single event.
What can you say about that? Last week’s championships in Doha marked Biles’ first international meet since winning the Olympic all-around championship, the sport’s most coveted title. Maybe it was the rust of a twoyear layoff, which included more than 14 months away from the gym and those famous six-houra-day, six-day-a-week training sessions. Or that she’d spent the night before the competition began in an emergency room with a kidney stone that was too big to pass, and was left with no alternative but to soldier through the pain since doping regulations precluded her from prescription medication that could have alleviated the discomfort.
Whatever it was, Biles was not herself in Thursday’s all-around. She sat down on her vault in the opening rotation, marking her first fall in more than 60 career routines at worlds or the Olympics. The shock only redoubled when Biles fell off the beam in the third rotation, prompting a look of consternation that not even her outstanding performances on the uneven bars and floor exercise could fully erase.
Yet Biles not only won but won by a record margin, outpacing Japan’s Mai Murakami by 1.693 points. Even not at her best, she was the best. And it wasn’t particularly close.
“It doesn’t show who I am,” a disappointed Biles said afterward, the gold medal dangling from her neck. “And that’s kind of disappointing.”
The American’s two falls might have proven fatal under the perfect-10 judging system that governed the sport until 2006, where maximum scores were capped and falls were a mandatory half-point deduction. But the current openended system includes a difficulty score that accounts for more than one-third of the final tally – and Biles’ “d-score” for the all-around was 2.7 points greater than any of her competitors (compared to 0.6 higher in Rio).
Falls under the present rules are an automatic full-point deduction, but the start values for Biles’ routines give her a cushion that’s practically insurmountable. For years the most common refrain underpinning Biles’ greatness was that she could fall multiple times and still win, but after a halfdecade of metronomic consistency the theory was finally put to the test on Thursday – and it passed comfortably. She could have fallen a third time and still taken gold. “Instead of thinking I could win,” said Murakami, whose score would have earned the gold in Biles’ absence last year, “I was thinking: ‘Oh, Biles can fall.’”
Thursday’s result might have been controversial if Biles’ supremacy, her ability to perform skills no other woman in the world could even credibly attempt in competition, wasn’t plainly evident. The fact is, Biles is so far ahead of everyone else it’s almost embarrassing. She’s performing elements an entire generation of successors will struggle to approach and it’s hard to recall having seen anything like it before in any sport.
Where the old system rewarded competitors for downgrading their routines, the current rules incentivise the sort of boundarypushing athleticism that, it must be said, elevates gymnastics as a spectator sport. There’s no room for playing it safe. Say what you want about it, but open-ended scoring encourages competitors to push their craft forward, the purest distillation of the Olympic spirit: Faster, Higher, Stronger.
Biles’ uneven routines in Qatar weren’t limited to the all-around, but there were far more peaks than troughs during the week. She managed a silver medal in the bars after a 14th-place finish on the apparatus in Rio, showing off a dramatic improvement in her weakest discipline. The overall haul of four golds, a silver and a bronze makes her the first American to medal in every event at a major competition – team, all-around, vault, bars, beam and floor – and the first woman of any nationality to do it since Romania’s Daniela Silivas at the 1988 Olympics.
She capped her record-breaking week with a gold in Saturday’s floor exercise final. It’s long been Biles’ favorite discipline, not simply because it offers the broadest canvas to showcase her uniquely brilliant physical skills, but because it scarcely feels like a discipline at all. (As her former coach Aimee Boorman told me in Rio, that’s where “she just plays”.)
There are few analogues in sports for the slack-jawed wonder that Biles elicits on the floor. To behold her spacetime-cheating routine to clinch her fourth gold on Saturday was like watching Vince Carter flouting gravity in the NBA dunk contest or Maradona slaloming through half the England team at Azteca Stadium. After the most trying competitive week of her life, it offered the clearest callback to her Rio breakout and, perhaps, a glimmer of what’s to come.
The records will only continue to topple in the run-up to the 2020 Olympics. Biles is now level with Russia’s Svetlana Khorkina as the most decorated female gymnast in world championships history with 20 career medals and will almost certainly eclipse Vitaly Scherbo’s all-time mark for either gender (23) at next year’s worlds in Stuttgart. And then Tokyo, where she can become the oldest woman in more than five decades to win the Olympic all-around title and the first repeat champion since Vera Caslavska did it for the former Czechoslovakia in 1968.
The greatest champions are defined not by winning when they’re peaking and all the tumblers are aligned in their favor, yet by how they persist and problem-solve and pull it from the bag when they’re not at their best. But for Biles, who remains so far ahead of everyone it’s going to take the sport years to catch up, the stakes of those gut-check moments are notably subdued. Her only competition is herself.
Simone Biles of the US became the first woman to win a fourth all-around world title in Doha last week. (AFP)