Gymnastics Doesn’t Know What to Do With Simone Biles’s Dominance
Her greatness is a form of resistance.
Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the world today.
For me, this isn’t a debate. It’s a statement of fact. On Sunday, she won a record seventh United States gymnastics championship, continuing her jaw-dropping winning streak in every all-around competition she’s entered since 2013. The 24-year-old hasn’t lost in eight years. Typical gymnasts her age aren’t beating all their rivals by the big margins that, for Biles, have become routine.
Although Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43, he is no longer in his prime, and other Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks, including Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers, are arguably more physically talented. Unlike the current greats in other sports, Biles has no peer. Serena Williams is the greatest female tennis player of all time and among the greatest athletes of all time, but her career is winding down, and Naomi Osaka is in position to unseat her as the face of women’s tennis. LeBron James won’t get a chance to defend the NBA title he won with the Los Angeles Lakers last season, because the Phoenix Suns eliminated his team in the first round of this year’s playoffs.
Meanwhile, Biles is likely headed to Tokyo next month, where she’ll have the opportunity to become the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the all-around competition in more than 50 years.
As impressive as her consistent dominance is, what Biles has come to mean to Black culture, to women, and especially to Black women is bigger than her all-out assault on the record books. Her excellence is an act of resistance. She is openly mocking expectations about what she should or shouldn’t do. Through her performances, she is creating a previously inconceivable new standard for her sport.
For this year’s U.S. championship, Biles wore leotards that featured a sequined goat. She has used the animal as her symbol since 2019 because she is the GOAT—as in “greatest of all time.” This, among other things, is what makes Biles special. She embraces that she is so extraordinary, that there is no one in the world like her, nor has there ever been. “It’s important to teach our female youth that it’s OK to say, ‘Yes, I am good at this,’ and you don’t hold back,” Biles told USA Today in 2019. “You only see the men doing it. And they’re praised for it, and the women are looked down upon for it. But I feel like it’s good (to do) because once you realize you’re confident and good at it, then you’re even better at what you do.”
At the Olympic gymnastic trials later this month, Biles is almost certain to qualify for the U.S. team. As the Tokyo Games draw closer, the question isn’t who will beat Biles, but whether she will be able to exceed her phenomenal 2016 Olympic performance in Rio de Janeiro, where she won four gold medals and a bronze.
The other question heading into Tokyo is whether Biles will again reset the standard when it comes to degree of difficulty. Even though Biles is the biggest star in gymnastics, the people who run the sport have stunted her brilliance on occasion simply because she is forcing them to rethink what’s possible. Their lack of imagination has become Biles’s problem.
Last month at the U.S. Classic in Indianapolis, Biles successfully completed the Yurchenko double pike on the vault, becoming the first woman in history to attempt this move in a competition. In February, Biles posted a video on Twitter of her doing the move in practice. The clip has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Even then, skeptics asked whether the double pike was too dangerous. But anyone who has followed Biles’s career knows that limits aren’t really her thing.
The only other American to successfully execute the Yurchenko double pike in competition is David Sender, who was the U.S.’s all-around champion in 2008. After seeing Biles’s performance in Indianapolis, Sender told NBC Sports, “My first impression was, wow, I think that was better than when I did it.” The videos that circulated of her vaults—from training and warm-up sessions and from the competition itself—were such breathtaking displays of her talent that they damn near broke the internet. James and former first lady Michelle Obama were among those left stunned by what they saw in the clips: Biles does a round-off onto the springboard, follows it with a back handspring onto the vault, and then finishes with two backflips.
The judges in Indianapolis were less impressed with Biles’s history-making move than the rest of the world was. They scored the move a 6.6—similar to scores that Biles received for far less difficult vaults during the competition. Observers of the sport have speculated that the judges scored her Yurchenko double pike lower than its difficulty warranted because they don’t want other gymnasts risking their safety by copying Biles. When reporters asked her in Indianapolis why she would continue to do a move if the judges weren’t going to adequately reward her for it, Biles responded: “Because I can.”
That inspirational spirit of defiance can be traced back to other Black athletes whose dominance and brilliance have forced sports to evolve. Wilt Chamberlain was such an unstoppable force that the NBA widened the free-throw lane—the painted area on the court where players on offense cannot linger—to keep him farther away from the basket. The NCAA banned dunking in 1967 because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was too good at it. (The ban was lifted in 1976.) In 1968, Major League Baseball lowered the height of the pitching mound from 15 inches to 10 inches because of Bob Gibson, who had a 1.12 ERA and won 15 straight games.
Biles has opened up a whole new level in her sport, even more than those men did in theirs. She now has four signature moves named after her, an achievement that can be earned only after a gymnast successfully performs the move at either the world championships or the Olympics. Biles is so far ahead of her competition that even when she’s not flawless, her performance is still more than enough for her to win convincingly. Her all-around score at the U.S. championship was a ridiculous 4.7 points better than runner-up Sunisa Lee’s. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, her then-teammate Aly Raisman joked that placing second to her felt like an accomplishment: “I knew that the gold was out of the question, so the silver for me genuinely feels like the gold medal,” Raisman said.
Next week, a seven-part documentary about Biles will air on Facebook’s video-on-demand service. The series is aptly titled Simone vs Herself. Because at this point in her career, she’s her only competition.