The only way an Olympic silver medal, a symbol that signals you are the second best out of all the planet’s 8 billion inhabitants, is considered a disappointing shock is if you’re on the US gymnastics team. For nine years, the team and their American fans have been accustomed to relentless dominance.
On Tuesday, the American gymnastics team did not succeed in its bid for a third medal in a row in Olympic Women’s Team Final, loses to Russia by a score of 166,096 to 169,528. As great as this news is, the result, the mistakes the United States could not overcome, and the resurgent Russian team were all footnotes to a major history of well-being for Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast and arguably the greatest athlete of all time.
After completely jerking a vault, Biles briefly left the arena and took himself out of the competition. Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum had to finish without her. The move was unusual, especially because, in a sport filled with unpredictability and risk, Bile’s greatness had taken over the power of inevitability. Since the first competition at senior level in 2013, Biles has never seemed to let anything – rivals, difficult moves, even violent abuse – prevent her from winning. This year’s delayed Olympics should be no exception.
And so it was.
Initial reports from the arena speculated that it could be an injury, but Biles told reporters she did not feel really mentally involved in today’s competition. She said her health was more important than going through the day’s events and more important than a possible gold medal.
“These Olympics, I wanted it for myself when I came in – and I felt like I was still doing it for other people,” Biles told reporters after the team event. “At the end of the day, we are also human, so we need to protect our minds and our bodies instead of just going out there and doing what the world wants us to do.”
Bile’s withdrawal immediately affected the American team, which strongly trusts her – but it also made a strong statement about the importance of mental health.
What happened to Simone Biles?
At the start of the competition, which took place on July 27, the Americans and the Russians, who were in the top two positions, both on the vault, were one of the Americans’ signature events. Traditionally goes back to 2012 (see: Maroney, McKayla), Americans have thrived on vaulting. Biles was put to go in second place and perform an Amanar – a vault consisting of a layout tilt and 2.5 turns, which she has hit again and again throughout her career, including at the Olympics in 2016. This time, Biles unexpectedly saved out of the vault early without completing the full skill and barely saved the landing.
Biles scored a 13,766 for his vault. At the 2019 World Cup, Biles scored a 15,233 on the apparatus. Gymnastics is a sport that usually scores to tenths and hundreds of a point – full points represent a big difference.
After her vault, Biles left the competition floor and did not warm up at the bumpy bars, the Americans’ next event. This was a surprise and cause for concern. Eventually, Biles returned to the arena and it was announced that she would not compete the rest of the night. Later, it was clarified that the problem was not physical but mental.
How Bile’s withdrawal affected the Americans
Losing the best gymnast ever will obviously affect a team negatively. It looks like a Bulls Championship basketball team that does not have Michael Jordan wearing. The team just does not have the same firepower. But gymnastics scores make a withdrawal particularly difficult.
In the Olympic team final, teams have a pool of four gymnasts. From these four, teams select three gymnasts to compete in each of the four sets. The scores of these three gymnasts – 12 in total across the four events – count no matter what, but the downside is that you do not have to submit the same three gymnasts across all events. You could theoretically use the fourth gymnast as a replacement (again, see McKayla Maroney’s vault in 2012) to cover for a gymnast who may be weaker or really playing to your strengths.
Galle was convicted competing in all four events for the team and losing her meant her teammates had to compensate for Bile’s scoring, 33 percent of the team’s total. Logistically, it also meant teammates Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee had to compete across all four events. Originally, Chile was to skip the uneven columns and balance beam, and Lee would skip the floor exercise.
Lee and Chiles having to adjust and prepare at the last minute is a huge blow. But they are both extremely talented gymnasts.
Even without Biles and with an unusually slow start, the Americans were within striking distance after three laps as they had surpassed the Russian team 41,232 to 39,532 on the balance bar. The problem came in the fourth rotation when the team suffered flaws on the floor, an event that has traditionally been an American strong suit and one of Bile’s best events. It’s hard to say whether mistakes were “unusual” when international competition was put on hold due to the pandemic, and Bile’s withdrawal was an extraordinary circumstance, but the Americans’ final figure was about three points behind the Russian team.
The American gymnastics team took Simone Bile’s greatness for granted
When the dust settles on the results, one comes off growing criticism from commentators and fans of gymnastics is that the American team coordinator Tom Forster did not make the best, most strategic choices for the team. Instead of rallying the team to the highest scoring potential, he went for team rankings and results. And the crux of the criticism is simple: Forster did not bring the highest-scoring team he could have to the Olympics.
“We are so, so lucky that our athletes are so strong that I do not think it will reach tenths of a point in Tokyo,” Forster told reporters after the Olympic trials. “We did not feel it was worth changing the integrity of the process just for a few tenths.”
Forster referred to choosing Grace McCallum over MyKayla Skinner. Although she was surpassed by McCallum in the all-round competition at the trials, Skinner’s specialties, especially in vaulting, would have given the United States a higher potential team score. With the way the current scoring system favors difficulties, the highest potential scores are something that coaches need to seriously consider if they want to win.
Observers also say it is curious that Forster used this language: “the integrity of the process.” Back in 1996, Forster coached a gymnast named Theresa Kulikowski, who finished sixth in trials and would have made the team that continued to be known as Magnificent 7. But Kulikowski was ousted from the team by Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu, who drew Forster’s anger. Forster’s lack of flexibility and insistence on maintaining “fairness” and status seems to be a reaction to his disappointment with the 96 decision, even though critics believe that kind of thinking is outdated.
“All-round positions are not a process. They are just results. What you do with these results, how you interpret them, that is the process, ”he wrote Dvora Meyers at Defector, which explains that scoring during trials is only a consideration rather than the end of everything and be-everything. Meyer’s article puts into words a lot of criticism of Forster: that he did not do his job to mirror his athletes, assess who topped or fell, figure out the competition with the thoroughness of someone who was determined to win gold.
Forster’s comments also as critics pointed out, showed how much he took Biles for granted, unintentionally or not.
After trials, the U.S. national team coordinator said a few tenths does not matter in the final, so he did not have to pick the highest-scoring team. The implicit idea was that Simone would carry the team to victory https://t.co/VVXQgENeOx
– Elle Reeve (@elspethreeve) July 27, 2021
This mentality puts a lot of pressure on Biles, who despite being superhuman has spoken openly about the toll for mental stress and injury.
Forster did not seem to consider what would happen and what would actually happen if Biles was not herself or worse if she was taken out of the equation. Below qualifying part of the competition, where all the American gymnasts compete, the best performing American gymnasts who were not Biles or Lee, were in fact Jade Carey and Skinner – who both surpassed McCallum and Chiles.
That said, with the way the competition played out and the silver medal shock, it’s temptingly easy for Team USA fans to fantasize about all the “what ifs” opportunities. At the same time, however, there is a group of young women who performed under extremely chaotic circumstances and still won silver.
And then there’s Simone Biles, and how we appreciate her greatness.
“Today it’s like, you know what, no, I do not want to do anything stupid and get hurt,” Biles told reporters after the team event, referring to a feeling of mental stress and fatigue. “And it’s just, it’s not worth it, especially when you have three amazing athletes who can step up on the plate and do it, not worth it.”
Galde added, “Getting here to the Olympics and being a head star is not an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time, then we’ll see.”
Bile’s retreat is a wake-up call for anyone who has seen her become the greatest gymnast of all time. She has achieved it so effortlessly and gracefully that it is easy to forget the enormous pressure she faces day in and day out, or the adversity and abuse she has been subjected to. Every time Biles enters the arena, she is expected to dominate. If she is anything less than dominant, whisper what went wrong.
Not participating in the team final was a decision by Biles to step away, but also a moment for all of us to reflect on the importance of mental health. Similarly, Naomi Osaka in tennis has also had direct conversations and treated mental well-being. Despite stains with acid setback, there has been an outpouring of support for Biles from Olympic athletes such as figure skating and Olympic medal Adam Rippon, former teammates Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandezand gold medal gymnast in 1996 Kerry Strug.
It is unclear whether Biles will participate in the all-round and event finals she needs medical approval to. But it’s not as if she needs to do anything more to prove her greatness.
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