Note: I wanted to talk about the same issue through two different perspectives. The first perspective can be found here, this article is from the second perspective.
One of the biggest gymnastics storylines of the past month has been another round of Simone Biles, the FIG, and the question of undervalued skills. I’m just going to link Spencer’s take on the double piked Yurchenko vault because his analysis is the best there is on this particular topic.
The only thing I really have to add is, what was FIG’s motive here?
Personally, I think it has to do with Simone’s hiatus. Simone’s career breaks down into two different eras, the pre-2017 era and the post-2017 era. In both eras Simone was famed for incorporating excessive difficulty into her routines. But where the eras diverge is the rationale behind the high D-Scores.
During the 2013-2016 era Simone’s approach towards difficulty was to use the open-ended Code of Points to build a strong lead so that even in the event of a fall during All-Around Finals, Simone’s point total over the rest of the competition was so high that she would still have a wide enough margin to win comfortably.
But during the 2018-2021 era Simone has evolved where she isn’t creating new skills and upping the difficulty (even more) for tactical reasons to win a competition, she’s doing it to fulfill her legacy. For Simone, it’s as if winning medals has become boring and routine. So she’s resorting to debuting new and extremely difficult skills to keep things interesting.
If Larissa Latynina is measured by the number of medals she won, while Nadia Comaneci is measured by the number of Perfect 10s she scored, Simone wants to be remembered by the number of eponymous skills she achieved. Biles is widely touted as the greatest athlete in the history of gymnastics, and Simone wants to strengthen that claim, or at the very least give herself a challenge after eight years of winning with ease.
It is my opinion that this stark difference is what didn’t go over well with the FIG. From their point of view, Simone’s behavior was perceived as mocking the rest of the sport and that’s where FIG drew the line. To some extent, I also believe FIG made this decision with future generations in mind.
That FIG sought to avoid a situation where historic new moves which will immortalize future all-time greats in the same fashion as Cheng Fei, Simona Amanar, and Elena Produnova, doesn’t occur with as much frequency in the 2030s, because Simone came along and took everything for herself in 2018-2021. Putting gymnastics in a position where it has to wait decades to catch up to where Simone was in 2013-2021.
I’m not trying to defend the FIG actions, only to explain what I believe their motivations were. But the FIG missed something, and I don’t mean the foolishness of trying to make Simone Biles an adversary. I think there is something FIG and to a lesser extent even USAG* don’t understand about themselves.
*I say this because they signed away their Podium Training rights to FloGymnastics
Their most valuable asset is not Simone Biles winning a competition, it’s Simone debuting another never before seen eponymous skill. In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. Classic isn’t a major competition. But thanks to Simone debuting a new vault, highlights of it achieved eight million views just on Twitter alone. Every major media organization covered it including the New York Times and the story made the front page of CNN.
National news broadcasts rarely show sports in their evening broadcasts. Let alone non-Olympic gymnastics competitions as the sport has only a tiny following compared to the NFL. Yet Simone’s new double piked Yurchenko was included in the evening news on not just a single night, but multiple nights as the competition progressed from podium training, to competition day.
High profile figures such as Michelle Obama, Dan Rather, Hilary Clinton, and LeBron James Tweeted about it. Even The Onion came out with a satire article because Simone was such a big news story. But long before then the double piked Yurchenko vault was receiving significant attention.
Among women, Nancy Armour is the most high profile sports journalist outside of television. When Simone Biles unveiled the vault during a 60 Minutes documentary, Nancy Armour wrote an article discussing it. Dissecting tiny glimpses of future potential eponymous skills in documentary footage is the type of behavior reserved exclusively for the 4-year fans. Not one of the most well-known sports journalist ten days after the biggest sporting event in the country (NFL’s Super Bowl).
There was also the time Simone received 2.5 million views on Twitter alone for simply preforming a vault into a foam pit. But perhaps Emily Giambalvo of the Washington Post provided the best example of all with a massive article being published in one of the most noted newspapers in the country to give people a breakdown of the Yurchenko double pike, and artist rendered graphics to go with it.
This single article represents how an eponymous skill gives the media so much new and compelling content to work with. Whereas simply winning another round of medals is repackaging the very narratives that had already been written about Simone at the 2019 World Championships.
If Olga Korbut was the perfect gymnast for her era by debuting a never before seen acrobatic style of WAG right as color television and live sports broadcasts were technological innovations beginning to take off, the same can be said for Simone Biles. Her constant string of eponymous skills and being a household name was the perfect combination to dominate social media in an era where social media now rivals traditional television in influence.
Under Biles, WAG is able to break national headlines in a non-Olympic setting in ways it had been previously unable to in the past. This is an even bigger advantage than it seems because WAG’s popularity surge typically comes in the middle of the Olympics, when it has to share the spotlight with athletes such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Simone Biles was able to bring gymnastics at the forefront of mainstream media coverage without having to share the spotlight with an Olympian in any rival sport.
And this is what the FIG is actively trying to discourage.
Simone’s eponymous skills are giving gymnastics one of its greatest surges in popularity and FIG’s response is that this must be stopped. FIG’s failure to understand the value of Simone’s eponymous skills is a prime example of incompetence. But there is a second reason this decision was stupid at its core.
FIG somehow thought they could get into a feud with Simone Biles and win.
Per her own statements, Simone Biles has revealed she is frustrated and even coming away feeling personally hurt by the whole affair. But as I’ve argued previously, the issue of FIG low-balling Simone’s career lionized the legend of an athlete who was already considered the GOAT of her respective sport.
The Simone/FIG controversy was unusual. Any sport can produce a GOAT who wins a staggering amount of medals or constantly break records, but an athlete being openly discriminated against because she was just too good? That story spread like wildfire because it was unlike anything most fans had ever seen.
Most people who watch gymnastics couldn’t tell you what “Yurchenko” or “piked” even mean. If they understood Simone was a giant amongst ants when she competed, they couldn’t tell you why. But with this simple narrative of the gymnast who was so good FIG had to change their rulebook just to stop her, now they do.
For casual fans who previously had difficulty comprehending just how far ahead Simone was relative to everyone else, this particular controversy simplified that. Saying “she was so good FIG began unfairly lowering her scores” was so simple even a five-year old could understand it.
Simone always had the respect of the causal fans who could tell you she was the greatest the sport had ever seen. But they couldn’t tell you why. Thanks to FIG, now they can.
And that was the biggest victory of Simone Biles’ career and something that was worth far more than a second Olympic All-Around title or being the most decorated gymnast at the World Championships. By trying to slow her down, FIG gave Simone the biggest win of her career, all while hurting themselves in the process.
By defiling the sacred concept of a level playing field and openly targeting an athlete who did nothing more than simply being better than everyone else, that made Simone a cause célèbre, with FIG being the bad guys in this story.
The entire sports community and even countless non-sports fans rallied to Simone’s defense. The story trended on every social media platform imaginable. On Reddit a Salon article featuring Simone shot up the front page of /r/all. Signaling it was one of the most talked about stories on the Internet and was generating significant attention from even non-sports fans.
So while Simone is feeling hurt and being unfairly put at a disadvantage thanks to FIG, in the end Simone always wins. And this fiasco was no exception. Simone can easily win a major gymnastics competition by a 2.100 or even a 2.600 margin of victory. FIG’s decisions to lower the value of her skills might have cost her a .200 here or there, but that’s about it.
That’s all Simone lost.
What Simone gained was a reputation boost of unprecedented proportions and elevated her status to an entirely new level, because Simone always wins. She beats her fellow athletes with ease, and FIG also seemed to forget that Simone beats non-athletes with ease as well.
USAG tried to maintain the Karolyi Ranch as a training location, even spending years fighting tooth and nail to get past the terrible optics of such a decision. But it took just 48 hours to kill that decision permanently when Simone publicly voiced her objections.
On two different occasions Simone played a role in getting a USAG chief fired. Before 2016 no one thought such a scenario was even possible. Simone has done it twice. Most gymnasts look to woo over the most prestigious clubs in the land and hope a top coach will let them in. Never before had a top gymnast competed while building her own club.
Simone not only did exactly that, but the club she built has since become a juggernaut, and already possesses one of the strongest lineups a single club has ever assembled. World Champions Centre has six members competing at the 2021 U.S. National Championships senior division, while also having a 7th gymnast who is a national team member and would have been in attendance if not for an injury.
This is yet another thing FIG seems to have forgotten, Simone is her own runaway freight train who can’t be slowed down. FIG may hold power over her, but to use it against Simone only made her a more sympathetic and respected figure than ever before. Because that is what momentum is, it can’t be stopped. With every roadblock Simone will either plow right through it, or find another way around it. And if you stand in front of a freight train, you’d rather wish you hadn’t.
Ever since FIG first unvalued Simone’s beam dismount they have found themselves in a lose-lose situation. Even back in 2019 FIG had been hated for it, and it forces FIG to overvalue all future eponymous skills Simone comes out with. Or risk fear of being accused of doing it again if there is even the slightest indication that perhaps the Difficulty Value could have been higher.
That is what occurred with the double piked Yurchenko vault where it could be argued both for and against it being undervalued. For a skill that could be argued “both ways,” only one way mattered, and that was enough to once again bring a larger controversy to the forefront.
And FIG won’t have to tread carefully with just Simone Biles, but similar potential new skills such as what Jade Carey experimented with during podium training on floor exercise. Additionally, it makes FIG vulnerable to being perceived as racist if a Caucasian athlete produces a similar high-level skill and doesn’t get undervalued in the same fashion as what occurred with Simone. That is, on top of their previous treatment of Simone already being touted as an example of racism in various articles and high profile Twitter accounts.
FIG had power over Simone and felt they should use that power against her. And the result was they have been forced to walk on eggshells ever since while its creditability has taken a beating. Meanwhile Simone is stronger than ever before, because if I haven’t said it enough, Simone Biles always wins.