Sublime Biles has exceeded Comaneci as greatest
American’s feats are astonishing, writes Simon Briggs, but she will never be rewarded with the ‘Perfect 10’
atching Simone Biles perform at this week’s World Championships, a quote from the essayist Simon Barnes sprang to mind. “All sports without a ball are about flying.” Because Biles has come closer than any other human to mastering gravity.
To say that she is the planet’s best gymnast is like saying that Steve Smith enjoys batting against England. And her 22 world medals – which could become 26 by the end of the weekend – are only the beginning. Like certain other deities of our time – think Roger Federer or Usain Bolt – Biles combines impossible feats with a sense of effortlessness.
When she leapt 10 feet in the air on her signature move – the Biles – at the Rio Olympics, I saw hardened hacks burst into astonished laughter in the media seats, forgetting for a second that we were all on deadline.
Three years later, that “double-layout” manoeuvre has now been eclipsed by the Biles II – the muchtalked about “triple double”, in which she flies even higher and turns even faster.
Her career feels like a cinematic superhero franchise, in which the main character’s powers multiply each episode. And yet there are no special effects involved. Just a 4ft 8in, seven-anda-half-stone woman with dynamite in her quads and a mind-bending work ethic.
In Thursday’s all-around final, Biles romped home by a record 2.1 marks, despite turning in a performance that she rated as only a seven out of 10 – which raises the question of whether we are talking about Biles enough.
She is far more than just another once-in-adecade athlete. Once in a century, more like.
For all gymnastics’ vibrancy – and it is one of the UK’S few growing sports – you sometimes wonder if there is any room in the public mind for a new queen of the air. It is as if Nadia Comaneci occupied that space at the 1976 Olympics and nothing can dislodge her. Biles is clearly a greater gymnast – hell, she is the greatest ever – but she will never have a moment quite as resonant as that first “Perfect 10”. Comaneci’s enduring global fame – and ubiquity as a pub-quiz question – owes much to the simplicity of the old scoring system. As Dvora Meyers explains in her book The End of the Perfect 10, there are still plenty of insiders who want it reinstated because of its grab factor.
There is a reason why the judges on Strictly Come Dancing do not start off by giving each routine a different theoretical maximum based on its complexity – as has happened in gymnastics since 2006 – and then chipping a piece off for each tiny infelicity. It is just too chewy. Any sport that relies on a 209-page handbook, spelling out the difficulty of each move from A to J (it used to be A to G, until Biles pushed the envelope) will struggle to match the elemental appeal of kicking a ball into a net.
And yet, despite its flaws, the new system copes brilliantly with the inflation of athletic endeavour. When 10s become commonplace – there were 40 handed out at the Seoul Olympics of 1988, for instance – the arrival of a new trailblazer requires everybody else’s scores to be dragged back. Whereas Biles’s supremacy was easily accommodated by giving her a higher start value than everyone else.
Sometimes you have to choose between crowdpleasing simplicity and a subtler, less marketable solution. Comaneci will always embody the “Perfect 10”, just as Roger Bannister did the four-minute mile. Yet it is Biles who will go down as the best we have ever seen.
She is far more than a once-ina-decade athlete. Once in a century, more like
Supreme talent: Simone Biles makes the extremely difficult look effortless