Simone Biles leaps into Olympics action but USA’s gap over rivals narrows

As Simone Biles walked off the podium following her opening floor routine of her Tokyo Olympics, she laughed bitterly to herself. She had overpowered her third tumbling pass so much that she ended up rebounding the floor and flying so far out of bounds that she cleared the raised floor. She was not happy. But what initially seemed to be an aberration in her first rotation of USA’s qualifying round turned out to be a reflection of the whole day.

With every passing rotation, the errors for USA piled up, culminating in an event that has not occurred over their past decade of dominance – for the first time since 2010, USA qualified in second for a major team final after scoring 170.562 as Russian Olympic Committee finished the day in the lead with 171.629.

Although Biles led all around qualifiers with a score of 57.731, she finished just three tenths ahead of Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade, who scored 57.399 and her surge in the final rotation very nearly led to her overtaking Biles for first place. Sunisa Lee, Biles’s teammate, finished third with 57.166 points. Following her mistake on floor, Biles also stepped off the vaulting mat on her Cheng vault and then she took four large steps back on her beam dismount.

Her teammates Grace McCallum and Sunisa Lee also contributed numerous minor errors while Jordan Chiles, who had been brilliantly consistent throughout this year, suffered her worst meet of the year and finished with a score of 52.698. There were, of course, still moments of supremacy from Biles dotted throughout the meet and none more so than in her dreamy 2 ½ Yurchenko vault which scored 15.400. Despite a large forward leap worth .3 points, she received an execution score of 9.6.

It is only one result. The USA remain clear favourites to win their third Olympic team title in a row and Biles will still likely win the all around competition comfortably but it paints an interesting, shifting picture of the women’s gymnastics landscape. After over a decade in which the United States produced so many of its greatest gymnasts, from Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman to Biles, leaving other nations in the dust, it is clear that the gap has narrowed again.

Earlier this year, the ROC’s own legendary gymnast, Aliya Mustafina, officially announced her retirement. But in her place, 21 year-old Angelina Melnikova has stepped up as the team’s senior gymnast, anchoring her team alongside two young, talented gymnasts in Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova. After a spotless day from all three, Melnikova finished six tenths behind Biles in the all around competition with a score of 57.132 in fourth position while the two 16 year olds finished right behind her in fifth and sixth.

At a time when numerous gymnasts are thriving out of their teens, Melnikova’s growth over the past five years is another reflection of the value of maturity in the sport. At the Rio Olympics, as a precocious teen known for her all-around ability, Melnikova balked under pressure and finished qualifying in 22nd place. She has steadily improved with age, returning to her second Olympics with increased toughness. When Biles finally retires, ROC will be there to battle.

Great Britain’s young team of Olympic debutants had a mixed day of competition as they finished in a respectable sixth position after a late surge. In their first major international competition, 16-year-old twins Jennifer and Jessica Gadirova carried the team wonderfully. Jessica, already a European champion on the apparatus this year, once again marked herself as one of the best floor workers in the world with a score of 14.033 to qualify for the final in fifth. Jennifer, who performed immediately before her sister, only narrowly missed the floor final with a strong 13.800. Both will compete in the all around final after Jessica scored 55.199 in 12th place and Jennifer finished with 54.699 in 17th.

While Amelie Morgan remained typically solid, it was a difficult day for Alice Kinsella, who fell numerous times, registered three extremely low scores in the 12s and was moved to tears by her underperformance. With Britain not particularly close to contending for a medal in the team competition and reaching only one event final, the day raised more questions about the omission of Becky Downie who certainly could have been a medal threat in addition to providing some experience for the team.

As the day wound down, 46-year-old Oksana Chusovitina’s untouchable career came to an end in her eighth Olympics after she failed to make the vault final. Chusovitina still performed well, landing both vaults to her feet but both with small errors; she finished out of the vault finals in 14th place.

Although she was unable to receive the send-off her career deserves in front of a loud, adoring crowd, as she digested the result her fellow gymnasts around the arena rose up to give her a standing ovation. She received it gratefully and became emotional as she embraced her coach. As their subdivision ended, the gymnasts on the floor rushed over to take a group picture with her, aptly commemorating the final day of a career that for so long seemed like it would never end.

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