It’s hard to tell what was more surprising during Tuesday’s women’s gymnastics team event at the Tokyo Olympics: Simone Biles’ exit or the victory of the Russians, who last took the gold medal in 1992 as the Unified team, which represented the countries of the former Soviet Union. Technically, that means this is Russia’s first-ever team gold. At the Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the Americans beat the Russians by more than 8 points. This year, Russia beat the U.S. by 3 points.
In the U.S., this has largely been seen as the logical consequence of U.S. star Simone Biles unexpectedly pulling out after the vault, creating an opening for Russians. Some Russian media outlets agree with that framing. “People expected a successful performance not from a talented but too young Russian team (both Viktoria Listunova and Vladislava Urazova are only 16 years old), but from experienced Americans,” said the Russian newspaper Kommersant. The outlet called the U.S. gymnastics team “a machine” and four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles “the face of the contemporary artistic gymnastics” and “a little monster, collecting bunches of medals.”* It continued, “The Biles misfortune became a factor the Russian team needed to get the gold.”
Others argue that the American team didn’t lose the gold—the Russian gymnasts won it. Russian online media outlet Sports.ru pointed out that having an opportunity is not enough; Listunova, Urazova, Angelina Melnikova, and Lilia Akhaimova had to know how to seize it: “You need to not stagger and come unglued.” Sports.ru noted that Russians made several significant mistakes too, and that when Urazova and Melnikova fell off the beam, it became evident that “the absence of Biles is not the only factor necessary for the Russian win.” Championat.com describes these two beam falls with even more pathos: “What a drama in artistic gymnastics! Russians win gold with two falls! … They flinched but didn’t break.” Larisa Latynina, who competed for the Soviet team in the ’50s and ’60s and is the only gymnast, male or female, to win nine Olympic gold medals, told Championat.com that it was not the Biles injury that helped the Russians. “Even if Biles competed, we would have won anyway,” said Latynina, calling the Russian team “brilliant.”
Russian gymnasts told the Russian channel Match TV that they are happy. But, according to Sports.ru, during the press conference after the competition, they sounded a bit offended when American journalists seemed to pay too much attention to the withdrawal of Simone Biles. “We didn’t focus on this. She is a human and could make a mistake or get an injury. We were thinking only about our performance,” said Listunova. Melnikova added that she and her teammates asked Simone Biles about what happened to her: “She answered: ‘Nothing.’ Like it is no matter.”
While Russian media are focusing on the outstanding performance of their country’s gymnasts, they are still criticizing Biles. “It is odd that she didn’t show leader’s qualities. She left her peers in the middle of the fierce fight,” writes Championat.com. “And this is a celebrated American champion?”
Another chance to compare Russian and American gymnasts will come on Thursday, when the athletes will compete individually. However, it is still unknown if Simone Biles is going to perform. “We’re going to figure it out,” she said Tuesday.
Correction, July 28, 2021: This piece originally misquoted Kommersant as calling Biles the face of contemporary rhythmic gymnastics. The paper called her the face of contemporary artistic gymnastics.