Five-ring Circus

Kerri Strug Shouldn’t Have Been Forced to Do That Vault

Simone Biles’ rejection of its legacy should bury an unhealthy culture of bodily destruction.

Left: Kerri Strug standing legs together with both arms raised after vaulting. Right: Simone Biles also with legs together, her left arm raised and right arm down and out beside her, also after vaulting.
Strug landing her vault at the Atlanta Olympics on July 23, 1996, at the Georgia Dome; Biles after hers in at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Tuesday in Tokyo. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jamie Squire/Getty Images and Mike Powell/Getty Images.

As we now know, Simone Biles has bravely “noped” out of at least four high-profile gymnastics competitions in the Tokyo Olympics, after the single most inopportune case of the “twisties” in history hit her midair during the first event of the team competition. Somehow, Biles landed that improvised Yurchenko 1.5 on her feet, at the bottom of what 1996 Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu recently called “a pool with no water.” Once a gymnast has incurred a mental block of this magnitude, it becomes dangerous to continue performing full routines on competition surfaces; as former gymnast and TV host Zerlina Maxwell put it: Gymnastics isn’t basketball. If you’re off your head game, you don’t brick. You die.

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Watching what happened after Biles’ exit, it was impossible not to contrast her defiant act of prudence with its opposite: the limp seen ’round the world that propelled Moceanu’s team, thereafter dubbed the Magnificent Seven, to superstardom.

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Indeed, as I watched Biles safely out of harm’s way in the stands of the all-around final, sitting next to teammates Jordan Chiles and MyKayla Skinner as they hyped up all their former competitors (yes, even the ROC), I mentally split-screened their jubilant act of sportsmanship with the Atlanta women’s team final, a nail-biter that came down to the final event, when American Kerri Strug severely sprained her ankle on her first vault—and then competed a second vault anyway, clinching gold for the Seven, and ushering in America’s foray into gymnastics domination (mostly) for decades. Huzzah, U-S-A, U-S-A, ad infinitum:

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It’s understandable why the moment became indelible. Everyone was terrified; she landed on her feet (pretty much on one foot); her team won. Gymnastics became irrevocably intertwined with what competing injured could mean—a gold medal, endorsements, public adulation, and something approaching athletic immortality.

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I watched that vault from my parents’ couch in Oregon and I remember as Strug forced a smile through sobs, while former (now-disgraced) American supercoach Bela Karolyi scooped up the 4-foot-7 teenager like a sack of potatoes so she could wave to the rapturous crowd. Later, we would find out that because Russia’s Roza Galieva biffed her double layout on floor, the U.S. hadn’t needed Strug’s second vault at all to win gold.

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But by then it was too late: she was—of course!—out for the rest of the Olympics. And she never competed again.

To be fair, gymnasts have been Kerri Strugging it since long before Kerri Strug was born. My former coach, three-time Olympian Linda Metheny Mulvihill, casually told us that her ankles were sprained for most of the 1970s, and that she just trained and competed through the pain. Mulvihill was, and remains, too polite to actually call us losers for not wishing to grit through it. But the clear message at my gym, and at all gyms everywhere, was that winners shut their mouths, got their ankles taped, and tumbled with a goddamned smile.

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Because after all, it was Strug who got the Wheaties box and Sports Illustrated and President Clinton and SNL. She became a legend, and Karyolyi’s decision—not hers—to have her vault injured became synonymous with the gymnastics ideal of white-knuckling through a high-stakes event, for your team and your country and the glory of sport—or at any rate, for sport’s TV ratings.

The thing is, as courageous and dramatic as that vault was, what it came to represent was, and remains to this day, bullshit. Competing injured might indeed make you, as NBC livestream announcer John Roethlisberger described the ROC’s Artur Dalaloyan, who helped his team clinch a gold in Tokyo on an Achilles that ruptured three months ago, “a warrior.” But Kerri Strugging against your will—a redundancy!—is something else altogether.

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Again, if it’s a choice the athlete makes, as Dalaloyan, a 25-year-old grown man who insisted the emotional significance of the competition overrode his pain, has done, then sure, I grant them their due. (The fact that, as the brilliant Russian gymnastics blogger Luba Baladzhaeva kindly explained to me, gold medalists from Dalaloyan’s technically Tokyo-banned country receive government pensions for life, also likely had something to do with his decision.) But the problem is that in women’s gymnastics—in 1996 and up until painfully recently—the athletes didn’t have a choice at all.

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As Moceanu tweeted this week, at 14 years old, she competed in Atlanta on a fractured tibia, which likely contributed to a catastrophic fall on the balance beam, which itself—given that she landed on her head—could have paralyzed her. Instead of withdrawing from the competition or even being given a simple spinal exam (which would have been administered, it bears mentioning with a shudder, by team physician Larry Nassar), Moceanu was ordered to compete on floor minutes later. In this context, it is completely unsurprising that Strug not only did that second vault—but that at the time, everyone expected her to.

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How striking it all is, then, that the vaulter of that legendary vault joined the torrent of famous voices in the gymnastics world in voicing unwavering support for the GOAT’s choice to avoid just the sort of injury that made Strug a legend:

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It’s almost beside the point that the 1996 team would have won without Strug’s vault. She still shouldn’t have had to do it. And that team—like this year’s—might have gotten a well-earned and magnificent Olympic silver medal. And that would have been enough.

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Maybe you, like such stalwart gymnastics experts as Charlie Kirk and Matt Walsh, think that’s a weak-sauce American-participation-trophy way to think about it. But—if being allied with connoisseurs of their ilk isn’t enough disincentive—consider this: Trading bodily destruction for Olympic victory perpetuates an unhealthy culture, one whose notion of disposable bodies has wreaked havoc the sport for decades.

It hardly even needs to be said that the subculture’s disrespect for athletes’ bodies played a role in allowing a powerful man’s sexual abuse of those athletes to go on for years. More to the point, it’s a culture that allowed sacrifice of its athletes’ well-being to go on unremarked upon until a few years ago, when brave gymnasts revealed exactly what went on unabated for years under the Karolyis’ watch. It’s a culture that forces a grievously injured Kerri Strug down a vault runway, and then coopts her sobs of agony into the victory narrative.

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In gymnastics at least, there is only hope of a world that centers and respects the athletes who make the sport possible when that glorification stops. Kerri Strug deserved to scratch that vault with pride. But it’s not 1996 anymore, and Simone Biles did have a choice, and that choice just empowered an entire new generation of gymnasts to have theirs. Her staggering career has already given us more than we ever deserved: The shocking double-double beam dismount; the breathtaking triple-double; the Yurchenko double pike that simply defies human earth words; the revelation of abuse that shut down the Karolyi ranch for good. Now, in refusing to compete compromised—to limp, 25 years later, down the vault runway that just almost killed her—Biles has once again given the gymnastics world something she didn’t owe it, but that will change it forever for the better.

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