She hadn’t lost in all-round competition since Frozen pipped Iron Man 3 at the box office, has four moves (four!) named after her, attempts routines that literally break the scoring system – routines some male colleagues won’t even try. She so reliably makes gymnastics a trending topic that no less than Twitter was compelled to create a goat emoji to reflect her status as the Greatest of All Time; never mind that she is just 24 jaar oud. Those four golds she won in her Rio Games debut? Pfft. Light work, they promised. Wait till Tokyo, and you’ll see how easily she reels in Larisa Latynina’s all-time record of nine career golds. For the five years that Simone Biles has reigned supreme over her sport, all we’ve heard is how she’s the next surest thing after death and taxes. Totdat, natuurlik, she wasn’t.
Op Dinsdag, as her American team was in the early stages of the women’s gymnastics team final, Biles huddled with a trainer after a flubbed attempt on her opening vault. When she then exited the competition floor with a USA Gymnastics doctor, the world held its collective breath. The excitement of seeing her reemerge several minutes later was quickly tempered when she slipped off her bar grips and hugged teammates Grace McCallum, Sunisa Lee and Jordan Chiles before slipping into sweatpants and a jacket and urging on her teammates.
Just like that Biles was out of the team competition, but exactly why wasn’t certain in the immediate aftermath of this epic plot twist. In a statement USA Gymnastics called it “a medical issue,” but before that her coach had told NBC it was a “mental health concern”. Uiteindelik, in a subsequent news conference, Biles said it was a bit of both – that the long, idle period leading up to the Olympics had frayed her nerves and compromised her focus, and that she didn’t want to risk hurting herself and her team’s chances in subsequent events by forging ahead anyway. “I’ll usually persevere and push through things," sy het gese. “But I just needed to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
Op die ou end, alas, it goes down as Team USA’s first loss in a major all-around event since 2011, with Biles registering the worst vault score of her glittering career. “We hope America still loves us,” she said from the mixed zone, a silver medal dangling from her neck. And yet: what’s even more stunning than this reality check is the fact that we never saw it coming in the first place.
Heavy is the head and whatnot, and the particular burden for Biles – die star of the Tokyo Olympics alongside Naomi Osaka – is Sisyphean. She’s supposed to stay great en top herself, ook. It’s one thing to embrace that challenge when you are setting the bar for yourself and then clearing it in a leotard emblazoned with a rhinestone goat on your back. But it’s quite another for NBC’s Hoda Kotb to ask in an interview, “Are you beatable?” and then twist her face into a beseeching smile before answering the question herself. “If I had a vote,” said Kotb, “I would say. No girl, you are not beatable.”
There are the endorsement deals with Visa and Athleta, all those little girls looking up in admiration, some of them already taller than the 4ft 8in Biles, some of them – like Biles – diagnosed with ADHD. There are all those black supporters around the world taking prideful ownership in her every outsized accomplishment. There are all those survivors of sexual assault who draw strength from the courage Biles has shown while speaking for them in the wake of Larry Nassar’s staggering crimes. That’s a lot to ask from anyone, and it shows every time a blip in form is laughed off as a trifle and not a symptom of excessive stress.
Really, Too Much Pressure could well stand as the unifying theme for a Games that has already seen losses for Osaka, taekwondo star Jade Jones and the once invincible US men’s basketball team. What’s more, we just saw Osaka take a break from tennis for her mental wellness, and we were introduced to the phrase “overtraining syndrome” last month as Simone Manuel clawed to make the Olympic cut for the US swimming team.
We expect our heroes to be perfect. So it’s to Biles’s immense credit that when she wasn’t feeling up to her GOAT status, she took a step back – despite the world clamouring for her gravity-defying moves. She chose to focus on herself again even if that meant – gasp – defeat in what are almost certainly her last Olympics. Biles showed us she is only human. And we would do well to remember that even as her aura of infallibility suggests otherwise.