The only way that an Olympic silver medal, a token signaling that you’re second best out of all of planet Earth’s 8 billion inhabitants, is considered a disappointing shock is if you’re on the United States gymnastics team. For nine years, the team and their American fans have grown accustomed to relentless dominance.
On Tuesday, the United States Gymnastics team did not succeed in its bid for a third consecutive gold medal in the Olympic women’s team final, losing to Russia by a score of 166.096 to 169.528. As huge as this news is, the result, the mistakes the US couldn’t overcome, and the resurgent Russian team were all footnotes to a bigger story about the well-being of Simone Biles, the greatest gymnast and arguably the greatest athlete of all time.
After shakily completing one vault, Biles briefly left the arena and then took herself out of the competition. Suni Lee, Jordan Chiles, and Grace McCallum had to finish without her. The move was unusual, particularly because, in a sport riddled with unpredictability and risk, Biles’s greatness had taken on the force of inevitability. Since first competing at the senior level in 2013, Biles has never seemed to let anything — rivals, difficult moves, even harrowing abuse — keep her from winning. This year’s delayed Games weren’t going to be an exception.
And then they were.
Initial reports from the arena speculated it might be an injury, but Biles told reporters she didn’t feel right mentally going into the day’s competition. She said her health was more important than going through with the day’s events and more important than a possible gold medal.
“This Olympic Games, I wanted it to be 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’re human too so we have to protect our mind and our body rather than just go out there and do what the world wants us to do.”
Biles’s withdrawal immediately impacted the American team, which heavily relies on her — but it also made a powerful 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 Russians, who were in the top two spots, were both on vault, one of the Americans’ signature events. Traditionally, going back to 2012 (see: Maroney, McKayla), Americans have thrived on vault. Biles was set to go second and perform an Amanar — a vault that consists of a layout flip and 2.5 twists, which she’s hit over and over throughout her career, including at the 2016 Olympics. This time, Biles unexpectedly bailed out of the vault early, not completing the full skill, and barely saved the landing.
Biles scored a 13.766 for her vault. At the 2019 world championships, Biles scored a 15.233 on the apparatus. Gymnastics is a sport that’s usually scored to tenths and hundredths of a point — full points represent a big difference.
After her vault, Biles left the competition floor and did not warm up on the uneven bars, the Americans’ next event. This was a surprise, and cause for concern. Biles eventually returned to the arena, and it was announced that she would not compete for the rest of the night.
How Biles’s withdrawal affected the Americans
Obviously, losing the best gymnast of all time is going to adversely affect a team. It’s akin to a Bulls championship basketball team not having Michael Jordan suit up. The team just isn’t going to have the same firepower. But gymnastics’ scoring makes a withdrawal especially difficult.
In the Olympics team finals, teams have a pool of four gymnasts. From those four, teams pick three gymnasts to compete in each of the four apparatuses. Those three gymnasts’ scores — 12 in total across the four events — will count no matter what, but the wrinkle is that you don’t have to submit the same three gymnasts across all events. You can theoretically use the fourth gymnast as a substitute (again, see McKayla Maroney’s vault in 2012) to cover for a gymnast who might be weaker or to really play to your strengths.
Biles was slated to compete in all four events for the team, and losing her meant that her teammates had to make up for Biles’s scoring, 33 percent of the team total. Logistically, it also meant that teammates Jordan Chiles and Suni Lee would have to compete across all four events. Initially, Chiles was going to skip the uneven bars and balance beam and Lee would skip the floor exercise.
Lee and Chiles having to adjust and prepare last minute is a huge blow. But they’re both extremely talented gymnasts.
Even without Biles and with an unusually slow start, the Americans were within striking distance after three rotations, having outscored the Russian team 41.232 to 39.532 on the balance beam. The problem came in the fourth rotation as the team suffered mistakes on the floor exercise, an event that’s traditionally been an American strong suit and one of Biles’s best events. It’s difficult to say whether mistakes were “unusual” as international competition was put on pause because of the pandemic and Biles’s withdrawal was an extraordinary circumstance, but the Americans’ final tally was some three points behind the Russian team.
The US gymnastics team took Simone Biles’s greatness as a given
As the dust settles on the results, one of the lingering criticisms from commentators and fans of gymnastics is that US team coordinator Tom Forster failed to make the best, most strategic choices for the team. Instead of assembling the team by highest scoring potential, he went by team rank and results. And the gist of the criticism is simple: Forster did not bring the highest-scoring team he could have to the Olympics.
“We’re so, so fortunate that our athletes are so strong that I don’t think it’s going to come down to tenths of a point in Tokyo,” Forster told reporters after the Olympic trials. “We didn’t feel like it was worth changing the integrity of the process simply for a couple of tenths.”
Forster was referring to selecting Grace McCallum over MyKayla Skinner. Though she was outscored by McCallum in the all-around competition at the trials, Skinner’s specialties, especially in vault, would have given the US a higher potential team score. With the way the current scoring system favors difficulty, the highest potential scores are something coaches have to seriously consider if they want to win.
Observers also say it’s curious that Forster used that language: the “integrity of the process.” Back in 1996, Forster coached a gymnast named Theresa Kulikowski who finished sixth at trials and would have made the team that would go on to be known as the Magnificent 7. But Kulikowski was bumped from the team for Shannon Miller and Dominique Moceanu, which drew Forster’s ire. Forster’s lack of flexibility and insistence on maintaining “fairness” and standings seems to be a reaction to his disappointment with the ’96 decision, even though critics believe that kind of thinking is outdated.
“All-around standings aren’t a process. They’re just results. What you do with those results, how you interpret them, that’s the process,” wrote Dvora Meyers at Defector, explaining that scoring during trials is just one consideration rather than the end-all and be-all. Meyers’s article puts into words a lot of criticisms voiced against Forster: that he didn’t do his job to scout his athletes, assess who was peaking or slumping, figure out the competition with the thoroughness of someone determined to win gold.
Forster’s comments also, as critics pointed out, showed how much he was taking Biles for granted, unintentionally or not.
After trials, US national team coordinator said a few tenths wouldn't matter in finals, so he didn't need 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
That mentality puts a lot of pressure on Biles who, despite appearing superhuman, has talked openly about the toll of mental stress and injuries.
Forster didn’t seem to consider what would happen and what did in fact happen if Biles wasn’t herself or worse, if she was taken out of the equation. During the qualifying portion of the competition, in which all the US gymnasts compete, the best-performing US gymnasts who weren’t Biles or Lee were actually Jade Carey and Skinner — both of whom outscored McCallum and Chiles.
That said, with the way the competition played out and silver medal shock, it’s temptingly easy for Team USA fans to fantasize about all the “what if” possibilities. At the same time, though, there’s a group of young women who performed under 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 don’t want to do something stupid and get hurt,” Biles told reporters after the team event, alluding to a feeling of mental stress and fatigue. “And it’s just it’s not worth it, especially when you have three amazing athletes that can step up to the plate and do it, not worth it.”
Biles added, “Coming here to the Olympics and being the head star isn’t an easy feat, so we’re just trying to take it one day at a time and we’ll see.”
Biles’s withdrawal is a wake-up moment for anyone who’s watched her become the greatest gymnast of all time. She’s achieved it so effortlessly and gracefully that it’s easy to forget the massive amount of pressure she faces day in and day out or the adversity and abuse she’s endured. Every time Biles steps into the arena, she’s expected to dominate. If she’s anything short of dominant, there are whispers about what went wrong.
Not participating in the team finals 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, in tennis, Naomi Osaka has also been having forthright conversations and addressing mental well-being. Despite spots of sour backlash, there’s been an outpouring of support for Biles from Olympic athletes like figure skater and Olympic medalist Adam Rippon, former teammates Aly Raisman and Laurie Hernandez, and 1996 gold medal gymnast Kerri Strug.
Biles will not participate in the individual all-around finals and may not join the event finals, which she’ll need medical clearance for. But it’s not as though she needs to do anything more to prove her greatness.