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

Gulf Times Sport - - SPORT - By Bryan Ar­men Gra­ham

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)

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