Despite every scrap of common sense in my head that screams how utterly nuts it is that the Tokyo Olympic Games are still on track to take place this July, I got excited the other night watching gymnastics’ U.S. Classic, where Simone Biles – the queen of queens, the GOAT of GOATs – became the first female gymnast to land the Yurchenko double pike vault in competition.
Wait – let’s be clear: she didn’t just land it. She had so much power coming out of that flippy miraculous thing that she nearly bounced herself out of the arena upon hitting the mat.
When she landed the skill during podium training in the days before the competition, the video quickly went viral. I could not stop watching it, dissecting it, thinking about what it might feel like to be powerful enough to launch some six feet into the air and do, well, all that stuff before coming down.
Biles has been on a bit of a hiatus. She hadn’t competed in some 19 months – 587 days, to be precise, and is making her return to competition at the ripe old – practically ancient, in gymnastics – age of 24. She ended the evening in the top spot, of course, a gold medal hanging around her neck. Was she perfect? No. The last pass on her floor routine, the fall off the uneven parallel bars – well, she needs to remind us every once in a while, that she is, indeed, human.
But the world’s greatest living athlete – yes, I am that confident about using such a superlative, and I dare you to step to me on this – came to play, and with that vault, that magical, soaring, mighty vault, she will have a fifth skill with her name stamped on it.
Is it any wonder that she competed in a leotard emblazoned with a rhinestone goat on the back? She gets it. She owns it. But do we?
Biles looks to Tokyo with four Olympic gold medals already in her stash, and some 25 world medals, the most decorated gymnast (and yes, that means male or female) in worlds’ history. If anyone can muster up some good will and excitement for an Olympic Games inundated with all things pandemic, it’s her. And yet, as many of us continue to point out, her work remains underrated, underrecognized, and undervalued – particularly by the body that governs the sport.
Some claim that FIG – the international organizing body for gymnastics – is worried that others will be tempted to try what Biles does to grab the higher degrees of difficulty, and end up in traction for their efforts. But as I discussed with students in my Equal Play class last fall when we watched, over and over again, her double somersault with two twists dismount from the beam, which the FIG concluded to be an H skill, rather than an I or J, which it likely should be (and you can look all that up or just trust me: it didn’t get what it deserves) part of it comes from the perception that what Biles does is easy. Because she makes it seem so. Effortless, even.
But that’s not what competition, at least fair competition, is about. Rather, sport is about overcoming obstacles and pushing boundaries. It is not a zero-sum game based solely on winning. If it was, Biles would’ve packed up and gone home out of sheer boredom – she hasn’t lost a meet since 2013. Rather, the ethics of competition insist that sport is a mutually acceptable quest for excellence through challenge.
Biles, then, has been in competition with herself for a long time now. Regardless of what value the FIG assigns to her new vault before she heads to Tokyo, and all indications point to it being, again, largely undervalued, she will continue to launch herself into the air and then stick that landing. Because that’s who she is: the greatest living athlete. How lucky we are to bear witness.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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