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Simone Biles battles judges to cement status as greatest gymnast ever

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Simone Biles is the embodiment of a new era in gymnastics that has soared alongside her gravity-defying feats. But as the American seeks gold at the Tokyo Games, she has cast herself as a rebel within a sport that has sought to constrain those unique athletic gifts.

Biles will lead the US squad in the women’s gymnastics team final on Tuesday. After making uncharacteristic errors in qualifying, the 24-year-old sought to calm expectations that she was on course to clinch all six gold medals she could win this week. “There are little things we need to work on,” Biles told reporters. “So we’ll go back and practice and work on that.”

Failing to add to the four Olympic titles she collected in Rio de Janeiro five years ago would be considered a significant upset. But the gymnast has warned she may fall short, complaining that judges would mark down her scores in an effort to level the playing field. 

It was a remarkable accusation from a woman who has four separate gymnastics moves named after her, an honour granted to those first to complete a manoeuvre in competition. During a training session in Tokyo, Biles completed the “Yurchenko double pike” on the vault apparatus, a somersault that no other female gymnast has attempted in competition. 

She sprints to gain speed, does a backflip on to a springboard to gain height and then flips over twice in “pike” position — with the body folded over and legs straight — to land upright. 

Even Natalia Yurchenko, the former Soviet gymnast with whom the move is associated, never tried it in competition. The reference relates to the Russian’s pioneering approach to the vault’s springboard. Biles wants to accomplish the move in Tokyo — and have it renamed.

Simon Biles, right, will lead the US women’s team in the finals on Tuesday © Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Observers marvel at such daring. But the International Gymnastics Federation, the governing body that controls the scoring system, has said that it sometimes marks down particularly dangerous feats. The concern is that even a slight error could end in fatal injury.

“There’s no point in putting up a fight because they’re not going to reward it,” Biles said of the scorers at the US Olympics trial. When asked why she still planned to perform the move in Tokyo, she replied: “Because I can.”

That attitude represents how the sport had moved on from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, when the then-14-year old Romanian Nadia Comaneci scored the sport’s first “perfect 10”. 

By 2000, that judging system was broken. Gymnasts regularly scored 10s simply by completing routines with the minimal requirements of difficulty and avoiding any errors. 

Nadia Comaneci
Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast, scored the first perfect 10 at the 1976 Montreal Olympics © Don Morley/Getty

In 2006, the IGF replaced scores out of 10 with a “Code of Points”, under which athletes earn two scores on each apparatus they attempt. The first is for execution, capped at 10. The second is for difficulty and is open-ended. The system favours groundbreaking moves over cautious ones. 

Biles incurred penalties during Sunday’s qualifying session for stepping out of bounds in landings for both the floor and vault.

“That was a surprise,” said Tom Forster, the US team’s high-performance co-ordinator. “She’s been incredibly consistent and I’m sure she feels bad . . . Those steps are mental errors.” 

Even so, the difficulty level of Biles’ routines was so high that she still outscored her opponents and qualified for all six possible medal events. 

She has complained that downgrading the Yurchenko double pike is merely an attempt to close the gap between herself and other athletes. “They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling,” Biles said earlier this year.

Simone Biles struggles to land her vault during the women’s qualifying round at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics
Biles made a series of uncharacteristic errors in qualifying, including her landing on the vault, but the difficulty of her routines was so high that she still outscored rivals © Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty

Unafraid of speaking her mind, Biles is also in open contempt of USA Gymnastics, the national governing body, for allegedly covering up sexual and physical abuse within the organisation. 

Larry Nassar, a longtime national gymnastics team doctor, was sentenced in 2018 to up to 175 years in prison for abusing hundreds of female athletes. Steve Penny, a former chief executive of USA Gymnastics, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he destroyed or withheld evidence of Nassar’s behaviour. Biles has said that she is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse

She has openly attacked the governing body’s handling of the scandal — in one case, responding to a tweet from the organisation wishing her a happy birthday by publicly calling for an independent investigation. 

Biles has set up a post-Olympics event for US female gymnasts, the “Gold Over America Tour” or GOAT. That event has effectively killed USA Gymnastics’ own post-Games tour, which has traditionally been a crucial moneymaker for the organisation.

The national body’s future, and that of the global sport, is overshadowed by what Biles does next. She has hinted that years of intensive training and past injuries have taken their toll and that she may retire after the Tokyo Games. 

“We’re really striving for a top three [finish],” Biles said of the US team’s ambitions in Tuesday’s final. But she is also fixated on leaving Tokyo with a personal haul that forever seals her status as the world’s greatest gymnast.

Additional reporting by Sara Germano in Tokyo

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