Teenage newcomer challenges Biles’ crown
The American queen of gymnastics could be toppled by Sunisa Lee, writes Myriam Cawston
Simone Biles has lifted the horizons of what was considered possible in her sport and beyond. This week in Stuttgart, she earned her 21st World Championships medal to become the most decorated woman in gymnastics history. She also added two new gravitydefying skills.
Biles is the undisputed figurehead of women’s gymnastics and clear favourite for tonight’s all-around competition, but following in her footsteps, her United States team-mates are flying, too. In the wake of Biles’s historic triple-double somersault at this year’s US championships, compatriots Mykayla Skinner and Jade Carey posted videos of their own versions on social media.
But emerging as Biles’s strongest contender is newcomer Sunisa Lee, the 16-year-old whose all-around score at the US trials placed her 0.350 points off first place. This is closer than anyone has come in years; it represents only a couple of steps on landings. Debuting at the championships this week, Lee already has a team gold to her name. Individually, she trailed Biles by more than two points in qualifying after a fall from the beam. But across all apparatus, her lightness in flight, extension, flexibility and sense of detail are akin to gymnastics from a bygone era.
So, how does style translate into points? How are the respective strengths of both athletes reflected in scores? Contrary to popular belief, general impression does not count. The open-ended scoring system, introduced in 2006, combines the “D” score, reflecting the cumulative difficulty of performed elements, with the “E” score, rewarding the quality of their execution. Rather than a subjective reflection of “artistry”, the E score is strictly codified.
The E score starts from 10 and the judges apply deductions based on failure to display certain characteristics. Biles’ and Lee’s
Lee’s lightness in flight and sense of detail could be from a bygone era
gymnastics have different inbuilt deductions: for example, Lee may get deducted for low chest positions on tumble landings, and Biles may not spend enough of her beam routine in releve (on tip-toe) or display “relaxed feet”.
Biles’s ample tumbles, clean twists, controlled turns and split leaps stand up to the detailed scrutiny of judges. Moreover, she is able to build such a lead on the overall difficulty score that she can afford a couple of large mistakes. At the 2018 World Championships, she walked away with gold despite two falls. Even she was conflicted about the win, telling journalists at the time: “I feel that the girls worked so hard and they deserve it a little bit better than me. Today wasn’t my best.”
One of the attractions of gymnastics as a sport is that it allows for different versions of outstanding. Artistic and composition deductions do feature in the code, such as “insufficient complexity or creativity in the movements”.
Lee excels in this domain, arguably outperforming Biles in her ability to create beautiful shapes and link them with fluidity. Biles shines in other listed areas, such as “confidence” in her beam performance.
Could Lee’s strengths allow her to challenge for all-around gold? It will be difficult. Deductions can be incurred for failing to meet a minimum execution standard, but no bonus is on offer for exceeding it.
Biles’ ample tumbles, clean twists and split leaps stand up to scrutiny
Last week, the women’s technical committee published difficulty values of newly submitted elements, to much debate. Biles’s new beam dismount, the double-twisting double back, was controversially assigned a conservative point value failing to reflect its extreme difficulty. The champion did not hold back in calling out the governing body on Twitter. USA Gymnastics was also unimpressed.
The controversy has appeared to heighten Biles’s motivation. Her beam routine in Saturday’s qualifying round was possibly the best she has ever produced and it is hard to imagine her walking away from tonight’s competition without a gold medal, although Lee will undoubtedly shine, too.