If the timing of this article feels out of place, it is because I spent a few days debating whether I should even comment on this topic at all. This article is a direct response to recent speculation of Simone Biles delaying her retirement and making a third Olympic appearance in 2024. The source of the speculation was an article profiling Simone Biles by the Houston Chronicle.
Let’s face it, this was going to happen regardless. Simone Biles is simply too big of a legend for gymnastics fans to simply allow her to hang up her grips and walk away quietly. Fans were always going to latch onto any rumor of a 2024 comeback from the specialist option, to even proposing a nationality change to Belize. Whatever it takes to justify the notion that Biles will come back for 2024.
The current Tokyo cycle (I’m not calling it a quad) isn’t even over yet and we’ve already seen the first glimpse of this. The Houston Chronicle didn’t do anything wrong or out of the ordinary. The local news outlet made a minor comment that Nellie Biles would like to see her daughter continue high level competition as a specialist for the next Olympic cycle. The comment was so off-hand that the Houston Chronicle didn’t even directly quote Nellie Biles. However they did quote Simone’s reaction.
Mom doesn’t know how my body feels on the inside.
Even though Simone outright rejected this notion in the very same article, the Nellie Biles reference was enough to fuel widespread speculation that Simone could further her career. The concept of Simone becoming a 2024 specialist was posted everywhere on the Gymternet. Here we have an article that arguably did more to dismiss the notion that Simone would try for 2024 than it did to strengthen it. Yet it was the portion where Nellie Biles suggested a 2024 comeback that generated more social media shares than the portion of Simone herself outright dismissing it.
It could not be any more clear that the behavior of gymnastics fans was to amply evidence of a comeback while ignoring evidence that Simone means what she says when she expresses doubts over continuing past 2021. It is going to be an exhausting process for Simone Biles as she deals with getting hammered by questions regarding 2024.
Not only will reporters be asking this question over and over again, but on social media her notifications will be hit non-stop with comments from fans suggesting it as well. Sometimes the most well intentioned messages can come off as insensitive or painful to hear from the perspective of the athlete receiving them. Whereas a fan might think they are demonstrating how much they love an athlete and want to see her continue forward, that athlete might perceive it as “I’ve already done so much, and yet they keep asking for more.”
It is not my intention to lecture the gymnastics fanbase as this dilemma is impossible to avoid. I don’t blame the Olympic Channel for repeating the story when they merely respond to a topic that was already trending on the Gymternet. Meanwhile the Houston Chronicle did everything they could to stop this rumor in its tracks by printing Simone’s retort. My only intent with this article is to remind fans that after everything this sport has been though, perhaps the best way to honor Simone Biles is to listen to her when she says 2024 is not on her current radar, and believe her when she says it.
Things could always change and Simone might realize how much she misses the sport after taking a year off, but that is for Simone and only Simone to decide. And it is a point we have not yet reached. Simone’s success as an athlete has been legendary, but the drawback of success is fans will always clamor for a comeback. They will advocate for it all throughout the 2024 Olympic cycle, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see discussion of “it’s not too late to stage a comeback” even into the 2028 Olympic cycle.
The Simone Biles dilemma is fans know she can say “no” an infinite number of times, but she only needs to say “yes” once. Thus, they will keep speculating on the subject. Because the careers of gymnasts are so short relative to athletes in other sports, it often becomes lost on fans just how much longevity Simone already has under her belt.
On paper, Simone Biles doesn’t look like an example of a gymnast with massive longevity, but gymnasts who win All-Around (AA) titles and dominate an Event Finals rarely last long. To build routine compositions across all four events that are strong enough to win an AA medal takes such a toll on the human body, that within a few years that gymnast will likely be retired.
If Simone wins the AA title at the 2021 Olympics, it will come eight years after her first AA win in 2013. That would beat the previous record held by Svetlana Khorkina (1997-2003) and Larissa Latynina (1956-1962). Yes you read that right, not even during the 1950s when gymnasts had careers that were significantly longer and routine construction/competitive schedules that were significantly easier, has a gymnast managed to accomplish what Simone is on the eve of accomplishing in the current era.
The closest contemporary to Simone Biles in the current decade is Aliya Mustafina. But since Simone’s debut in 2013, Mustafina has missed the World Championships on three occasions and hasn’t won a medal in an individual event since the previous Olympics. For comparison, Simone Biles has missed only one World Championships while winning nine individual medals since Rio.
Or you can merely look at the 2012 Junior National Championships where Simone competed for the last time as a junior. Of the 23 participants, only one other gymnast is still active at the elite level. Laurie Hernandez who is three years younger and is coming off a four year hiatus.
With these statistics in mind, perhaps gymnastics fans really should listen to Simone when she talks about how her body is feeling. And if 2021 ends up being the last time we see Simone compete, we are merely saying goodbye to Simone the athlete. Simone the legend will continue. Perhaps she will bless us once more by becoming an Olympic commentator. As someone who spends ample time profiling gymnasts from the Cold War era who have been retired for decades, often times it is what they do in retirement that is equally as impressive as what they accomplished as an athlete. There are no goodbyes when athletes retire, there is simply the next chapter.
There are two things that make Simone Biles great, the medals in her trophy case and the way she conducted herself outside the gym. But Simone will soon add a third element to her greatness, leaving the sport in a better place than where it was when she first found it. The greatest legends of all are the ones who in one final act of selflessness, set their successor up so they can easily achieve success. Supporting the next generation in every way as they rise to the formidable task of trying to replace an irreplaceable legend. Simone has already hinted at this to the Olympic channel.
“I try to pass it on to the younger girls, telling them I’ll probably be there to watch you.”
But when the day comes that Simone will hang up her grips, it will be on her terms. Simone can follow the footsteps of Vera Caslavska who retired after giving the strongest performance of her career. For Vera, there was nothing left to win that she hadn’t already won, and she wanted the curtain to fall with a thundering applause. Or Simone could follow the footsteps of Larissa Latynina, who stubbornly fought to the bitter end. Latynina failed to win an individual medal in her final competition. Larissa had so much love for the sport that she couldn’t leave it until her decline had reached a point where Soviet coaches were unlikely to award her a spot in future lineups.
Both options are equally honorable and it is up to Simone to decide how the curtain will fall on her career. As for now, the best way gymnastics fans can honor Simone is to remember the accomplishments she already has, and not speculate on how she could obtain even more. To let 2021 be the celebration of a storied career and not let 2024 speculation cloud that narrative. To listen to the very athlete who fought for cultural reform that emphasizes listening to gymnasts. And to remember that legends come in many forms and there are multiple ways to appreciate Simone Biles.