Five-ring Circus

The U.S. Women’s Simone-Less Silver Medal Was a Triumph

A team competing under shocking circumstances almost won, and the sport may be better off for it.

The four gymnasts stand in a row smiling on the podium. Each holds her bouquet up high with one hand and her silver medal around her neck with the other hand.
Jordan Chiles, Simone Biles, Grace McCallum, and Sunisa Lee at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo on Tuesday. Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

It can happen to any gymnast: The “air awareness”—that miraculous ability to tell where they are even while upside down and spinning—fritzes out during the exact second it shouldn’t. It can even happen to the greatest gymnast to ever twist, during the biggest meet of her life. Yes, as you may now know, Simone Biles made an uncharacteristic error on her signature event during the first rotation of the Tokyo Olympics’ women’s gymnastics team final. She lost her place midair during what was supposed to be a 2.5-twisting Amanar—a vault she’s been murdering in her sleep for nigh on a decade—and instead finished after only 1.5 twists, underscoring her usual magnificence by almost 2 points:

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And then—before the gymnastics world even began processing what we’d just seen—she scratched from the whole competition. The heavily favored U.S. ended the day draped in silver.

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In gymnastics parlance, “scratching” is when an athlete declines to compete on an apparatus on which she’d been scheduled. It usually occurs because of injury; in Biles’ case, she made the decision to avoid potential injury, because her head wasn’t there. “At the end of the day,” she explained: “It’s like we want to walk out of here, not be dragged out here on a stretcher. I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to.” She mentioned other reasons for sitting out, too, citing “a little injury to my pride” after her vault. “After the performance I did, I just didn’t want to go on.”

“It does suck when you do feel the weight of the world, and you feel like there are no outlets for the amount of training that we do. We were totally prepared, but it just sucks when you’re fighting with your own head,” she told reporters present after the meet. “Like, you want to do it for yourself, but you’re still too worried about what everybody else is going to say, on the internet and stuff sometimes. So I just had to stay off of it for a past couple days.”

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It ought to go without saying that Biles does not owe any of us an explanation—or any gymnastics. While we all want to know what happened, why she scratched isn’t even really what’s important here. What is important is that a grown adult athlete made what she thought was the best decision for herself: to leave a competition that, yes, an entire world had placed on her shoulders.

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Despite her stunning departure, the meet was not over. What that world seemed to have forgotten is that Biles has three teammates. And luckily, those teammates beasted out one hell of a performance, under extraordinary and shocking circumstances. Suni Lee delivered a staggering bar routine, Grace McCallum hit floor after not planning to compete it, and Jordan Chiles came back solid on beam after falling twice in qualification. Their mythical gold might have been wrongly foretold and arrogantly (some might even say toxically) presumed—but the resplendent, gleaming silver that now adorns the necks of those four young women was earned as hell.

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All told, the Biles-less U.S. was unable to surmount a 3.4-point deficit behind the juggernaut Russian Olympic Committee—who, thanks to mostly brilliant performances and immense difficulty, ended up pulling off the shocker of Tokyo and taking home gold for their (technically banned) country. Yes, for a second there, after two ROC-ers ate mat on the beam, it looked like anyone’s meet again. But in the end, it was Biles and company, smiling, hugging, and offering sincere congratulations to a weeping Angelina Melnikova, Vladislava Urazova, Viktoria Listunova, and Lilia Akhaimova for a magnificent win.

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There is so much to take away here about gymnastics and American-ness and the perception of “greatness” that have nothing to do with Biles’ withdrawal itself: what this silver portends for a U.S. program without her (though, granted, three years before the next Olympics is a long time); how abjectly amazing the U.S. team did (yes, without caveats); and, not least of all, how upside-down the priorities of the U.S. program still are (WIN! WIN! WIN!), even after the quasi-reckoning brought upon by the Larry Nassar horrors, and the subsequent dismantling of the enabling structure that Bela and Marta Karolyi oversaw.

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One may be tempted to point to this “loss” as proof positive that the Karolyis’ totalitarian reign of terror “worked.” But I will be equally tempted to tell one that one doesn’t know what one’s talking about. Marta Karolyi would not have been able to abuse gymnasts out of getting disoriented midair. If anything, her incessant psych-outs would make that worse. You think a culture of obedience and acquiescence and the total surrender of bodily autonomy would have put Simone Biles under less pressure?

Many gym fans have also second-guessed team director Tom Forster’s decision to leave MyKayla Skinner off the four-person team—but with literally any four of the most stellar athletes in the world, an Olympic final in a pandemic year is still a competition full of nerves and pressure and stress and unknowns, where anything, including shit, can happen. There was no single mitigating factor (or even cluster of them) that precipitated four human beings doing something we’ve all done: having an off day at work.

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The fact that the near-worst-case scenario still netted this team a silver goddamned medal at the Olympic Games is an accomplishment the likes of which most mortals daren’t dream. The Biles-less future of the American program might bring lots more silvers, or gold again, or no medals at all (OK, that last one is unlikely)—but the results Tuesday should only reemphasize that the dark, miserable, hidden world of the Karolyi system should never return, under any circumstances. The team’s biggest star—the sport’s biggest ever—felt empowered enough to put her physical and mental well-being above pursuing gold at all costs, and her teammates supported her with enough élan and astonishing skill of their own to still nab silver. Those are very good things for anyone who cares about the health and humanity of American gymnasts, and under the Karolyis, such a choice and team response would have been unthinkable.

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Furthermore, no one should abide considering this result as the U.S. “falling short,” or even saying that what’s important is that “the U.S. lost.” Such a perception of the American finish is exactly the kind of jingoistic, second-place-is-first-loser bullshit that fostered an atmosphere of abuse in the prior era—and it’s the attitude that survived into this one, to such an extent that it created the brash expectation of inevitable gold for this team in the first place.

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While the U.S. technically “lost” in that it finished behind its competitor, it’s more accurate to say that the ROC won. They won because their routines were the best, and because they are amazing. Listunova is 16 years old, and her difficulty, execution, and solidity under pressure are sublime. Melnikova is a beloved veteran, whose grace, skill level, and work ethic are near unmatched. These athletes won because they were the best on Tuesday, and American gymnastics fans should follow the example of their team and graciously recognize the Russians’ brilliance. For those of us of a certain age, the return of this region’s dominance, unmatched in the 20th century, even suggests a balance in the universe that’s hard to put into words.

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What I do know makes me happy, truly, is that this result will hopefully starve this country, a little bit, of fuel for its fixation on gold. The image of a little girl watching a young woman win gold for Team USA (U-S-A! U-S-A!) and then getting inspired to try gymnastics is a poisonous narrative. It’s an obsession with the notion that greatness can inspire, that the color of greatness is gold—and that any other result is failure. What I want instead is for America’s gymnastics program to teach kids to recognize magnificent performances, however they appear, regardless of medal—and to admire when an athlete prioritizes her own health over that stupid effing medal. It’s so much healthier for kids to enter the sport inspired by the grace, athleticism, nerves, and sportsmanship that athletes from all over the world show in competition.

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What I know most of all is that no single meet, no matter its status, can do a single damn thing to so much as nick the near-indescribable legacy of an athlete who has given her sport many orders of magnitude more than it deserves, for many more years than anyone expected—not to mention the itsy-bitsy fact that this Olympics still has five women’s gymnastics finals left, and said athlete happens to have qualified for all of them. She might still choose to sit those out, too. But it’s very possible that we have not seen the last of Simone Biles in Tokyo.

As I begin to wrap my head around what happened in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre in the wee hours of this American morning, I’m finding myself hurt for Biles but also proud of her and her teammates, and taking comfort that every single athlete in that arena did the best gymnastics she could in the circumstances she was given, including the Americans. Suni Lee nailed the literal hardest bar routine in the world. Grace McCallum thrived under pressure. Jordan Chiles returned to a balance beam that destroyed her—and destroyed it right back. And Simone Biles prioritized—deservedly—her humanity, which is the quality that her rapturous fans often deny her the most. The U.S. women did their best, and their best was great. This time, the color of greatness just happened to be silver.

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