The Tokyo Olympics are still two months away, and yet I am convinced Simone Biles has already reached the pinnacle moment of her storied career. Short of winning gold on every event in Tokyo, I think the key moment of Biles’ career has already arrived.
Every gymnast who achieves superstardom has a trademark moment which will define her entire career. For Simone, I don’t think it will be the 2021 Olympics, nor do I think it was the 2016 Olympics. As for her record of being the most decorated woman at the World Championships, I don’t think that will be her defining moment either.
I believe that when casual sports fans talk about Simone’s career three decades from now, they will remember her as the gymnast so dominant, FIG had to come out with rulings just to slow her down.
It is not what you win, it is not how you win, it is the story that gets told along the way.
Take Nadia Comaneci for example. She is remembered for many things. Being the first gymnast to score a Perfect-10. Scoring those 10.000s over and over again. Accomplishing something that was thought to be so improbable she literally broke the scoreboard. Doing that all at just 14 years of age while her story symbolized the concept of humans striving towards perfection. Coming from a country many had never heard of, and being such a cute little kid everyone affectionately referred to Comaneci by her first name as if she were their own child.
That’s what Nadia gets remembered for. And think about it, how many times have you seen Nadia introduced as simply “the 1976 All-Around Champion” and nothing more? It is as if the most prestigious gold medal in Nadia’s trophy case is a mere footnote compared everything else her career represented.
When Simone Biles added another round of World Championships medals to her trophy case and surpassed a record once held by Svetlana Khorkina, gymnastics fans had no difficulty understanding the significance of what Simone had accomplished. But for the casual observers of the sport, the premise of breaking a record was simple for them to understand, but the significance of it was not.
They probably had other questions. “What was the previous record” or “how often do these medal records fall?” For the casual fans, all they really knew about the significance of what Simone had accomplished was that 25 was a higher number than 20. But when FIG tried to slow Simone down, that automatically gave the casual fans the exact context they needed to understand just how far ahead Simone was relative to everyone else.
The hardcore gymnastics fans who follow the sport year round may roll their eyes at the casuals, but the casuals represent the majority of viewers and their perspective is often what a gymnast’s legacy will. It is why most know McKayla Maroney for “the face” rather than her legendary 16.233 vault.
What Simone accomplished with a string of new skills she started debuting in 2018 and FIG’s response to lowball the beam dismount and then have a questionable, but less obvious response to her double piked Yurchenko vault was to create that perfect story.
Finally, Simone had a story that had all the attributes to become the defining moment of her career. It was easy to explain to casual fans what had happened, and casual fans were quick to feel the outrage themselves. The concept in itself was so inconceivable that causal fans quickly invoked comparisons to other sports and say things like “this would never happen to a baseball player.”
People became attached to this story because it was a relatively simple concept, but also because it expressed larger themes such as a Black woman overcoming an unfair playing field, and the perception of discrimination because the old guard felt she was having too much success. People identify with those dynamics. But others who don’t subscribe to the racial dynamics of this story still see a young adult trying to fight a system stacked against her, and that alone is enough to stoke sympathy.
Most importantly, this story was unique. Any Olympian can be measured in the number of medals won, the records achieved, and examples of outlier scores.
But FIG, Simone Biles, and the notion they were trying to ban her moves because she was just too good? That was an entirely new dimension and a story everyone loved to eat up. As casual fans retell the story to each other, every time it is repeated details are omitted and the story becomes a little less truthful.
Simone Biles isn’t the first gymnast let alone the first athlete to experience this. The exact same scenario occurred with Olga Korbut’s famed 1972 “Korbut Flip.” It is a widely circulated myth that this skill was immediately banned after 1972 and/or that it was so difficult that to this day no other gymnast has ever been able to do it.
Nadia Comaneci wasn’t immune from this trend either. Nadia actually had a tiny hop on her landing when she scored her first Perfect-10. But judges still gave her a 10.000 anyways because the rest of the routine was just that good. Ironically, the routine most commonly associated with Comaneci, and the example synonymous with perfection, probably wasn’t the best uneven bars routine of Nadia’s career.
Or perhaps the other “SB” is an even better example. Figure Skater Surya Bonaly famously performed a backflip at the 1998 Olympics. Like Korbut, this later provoked a myth that officials had banned the skill as a direct result of Bonaly being the first to do it. When in actuality, it had been banned twenty years prior.
But that highlight reel plus a compelling story secured Bonaly’s place as one of the most widely remembered figure skaters of all time. Even though Bonaly never won an Olympic medal in her career, casual sports fans who don’t follow figure skating are widely familiar with her.
I’m sure the gymnastics diehards will get increasingly frustrated as Simone’s story of her skills being outright banned by the FIG is a myth that will only become more and more prevalent with time. But as the careers of Comaneci and Korbut demonstrate, who cares? The casual fans will have their fun appreciating these marvelous gymnasts and trying to say “well…actually” is just tearing down their heroes.
Given Biles’ immense talent, it was always going to be this way. At a certain point a gymnast becomes so famous that as fame becomes legend, the divide between truth and fiction gets complicated. Athletes are widely loved. They are appreciated for their wins, but even more than that fans love a good story. And between stories and medals, usually it’s the stories people like to tell first.
That is what was always missing from Simone’s career. She always had the high medal counts and the impressive D-Scores, but during the Tokyo Olympic cycle Simone accomplished something that resonated with the entire sports world in a way that goes beyond the number of medals you have won.