USA Gymnastics was already on the wrong foot entering the women’s team final at the Tokyo Olympics on Tuesday morning. Over the weekend, Simone Biles had stumbled during the qualifying rounds, bouncing not just out of bounds but off the mat after her second-to-last floor pass and flubbing landings on the vault and the beam. The U.S. women qualified in second place, behind Russia. Still, there was hope that, as in the past, they would end up indomitable in finals competition, in large measure because of Biles, who is rightly recognized as the greatest athlete in the sport’s history.
Her skills, especially on the vault, are so advanced that the International Gymnastics Federation has scored their difficulty levels conservatively, for fear of incentivizing other athletes to put themselves in danger following her lead. The American women have not lost an international team meet since 2010, and, in recent years, Biles’s success has allowed them to win competitions by entire points in a sport often determined by tenths or hundredths. “I don’t think it’s going to come down to tenths of a point in Tokyo,” Tom Forster, the U.S. high-performance director, told the press in June, after the Olympic trials.
So it was shocking, during the first rotation of Tuesday’s final, to realize that Biles had bailed midair on her standard vault, a two-and-a-half twisting Yurchenko, which she usually completes with ease. In flight, she appeared to lose track of her own motion, finishing just one and a half twists. She landed in a squat so deep that she almost sat on the mat, and then she took a hefty step forward. Her score, of 13.766, was the lowest showing of the three U.S. women who competed in that rotation. Entering the second rotation, the U.S.
women were more than a point behind Russia—on what was supposed to be their strongest event. Biles was escorted off the floor by a trainer, and she returned, without grips, wearing a white sweatsuit over her leotard. News soon reached the stadium: she was withdrawing from the team competition “due to a medical issue,” USA Gymnastics said in a statement. Without Biles, the team’s chances at the gold quickly dwindled, and, in the end, they took the silver. The Russian women finished first, by a margin of more than three points, securing their first Olympic team victory since the 1992 Games. (Great Britain, which had qualified in sixth, took the bronze.)Anyone who has followed the tumult of USA Gymnastics in recent years knows the immense, inhumane pressure that Biles and her teammates have borne. Since the revelations of Larry Nassar’s abuse, athletes say they have struggled to get reassurance, from both the sport’s governing body and the United States Olympic Committee, that their health and well-being is a priority. USA Gymnastics has relied on Biles to buoy its reputation in the midst of scandal and to boost its scores in international competition.
At qualifications, despite several uncharacteristic errors, Biles finished first as an all-around competitor. (If she decides to compete in that final, on Thursday, she is still the favorite to win.) But, as the qualifying round revealed, counting on Biles as a buffer is not always enough to guarantee victory for the women’s team—nor should it be.
On Monday, before the team final, Biles wrote on Instagram that she felt “the weight of the world” bearing down on her: “I know I brush it off and make it seem like pressure doesn’t affect me but damn sometimes it’s hard hahaha! The olympics is no joke!” The endless praise that Biles receives for her “superhuman” abilities can lead to a kind of dehumanization, enforcing an incessant expectation that she not only perform but outperform and a sense of bafflement in the rare instances that she doesn’t.