Simone Biles’ desire to innovate is frustrated by her own insular sport
The WTC’s refusal to properly reward new skills is in danger of creating a world where gymnastic routines are tediously similar
Last modified on Sat 24 Jul 2021 02.35 BST
In the final fleeting month before the Olympics two of the best gymnasts in the world showed for the first time similar uneven bar skills of the highest difficulty only days apart. Both Sanne Wevers and Nina Derwael performed slightly different variants of the iconic Nabieva release, in which the gymnasts launch themselves above and beyond the high bar with their legs straight before executing a half turn in the air and then catching it on the other side.
But high difficulty often comes at a cost. Derwael flexed her feet and arched her hips to clear the bar, then “cheated” on her half-turn. Wevers’ variation was more difficult but her bent legs splayed out in all directions above the high bar. This is all a normal sight. As gymnasts push their limits with the toughest skills, legs cross, chests fall low on landings, twists are not fully completed and the judges mark every deduction down.
Such form deductions come to mind whenever Simone Biles vaults her startling Yurchenko double pike, precisely because she does not produce them. The vault is one of the most difficult skills in the history of women’s gymnastics and it remains a nerve-racking sight, but every time Biles has performed it her technique has been unimpeachable. Her body position during her vault entry is arrow-straight. Her legs are packed tightly together. The height and distance she generates are phenomenal and she lands with her chest high up.
Somehow even her few flaws are impressive. When Biles unveiled the vault at the US Classic in May, her landings in training and the warm-up were spectacular. But in the competition she took two large backwards steps. When she is nervous, Biles tends to over-rotate her biggest skills to ensure that she lands them, which is remarkable. While no other female gymnast can perform it, Biles has extra power to spare.
The creation of another new skill has again come with drama. After the International Gymnastics Federation’s Women’s Technical Committee (WTC) awarded Biles’ double-double dismount on beam in 2019 an illogical value, Biles was again disappointed by the value of 6.6 her vault received as opposed to the 6.8 she hoped for.
Amid the waves of outrage from those who parachute into the sport every four years, the issues have also been smartly dissected by publications including the Balance Beam Situation, which suggested that the score is a bit low, probably should be higher but it is not as clear as her beam dismount, and also the vast historic context provided by Dvora Meyers.
Biles is understandably frustrated by a sport that, throughout the last eight years, has at times seemed to endure her success rather than embrace it. The word artistry, an endless discussion point in the sport, has often been weaponised against her style of gymnastics.
Many prominent figures have made little effort to hide their ambivalence towards her. Considering the former WTC president Nellie Kim has previously expressed her disapproval of “athletic” gymnastics and “the Canadians from Cirque du Soleil [who] teach the whole world” gymnastics, her response in 2019 when asked about Biles elevating the sport was no surprise: “I don’t know if it’s right to say elevated gymnastics. But I can tell you, for sure, that she is using current code of points in full.”
What is clear is that Biles’ excellence has exposed the ineptitude of the WTC. Instead of endeavouring to create a code of points that allows a variety of different types of gymnasts to thrive, it has attempted to construct it with its own preferences in mind which almost always centres on nostalgia for gymnastics of the past. The control it exerts on the sport also extends beyond skills to the “modesty” of gymnasts’ make-up.
The result is that the Code of Points is illogical, inconsistent and certainly not open-ended, as it has been described since routines were no longer scored out of 10 from 2006. Certain innovative skills are undervalued, as are skills that are biomechanically more difficult than others. One of the frustrating consequences is that routines can often be extremely similar with little room for individuality.
Examples of the WTC clamping down on innovation span decades. They squeezed out Liu Xuan’s one-armed giant on uneven bars in 1996. The Croatian gymnast Tanja Delladio, who debuted the unique “snap down” technique on the bars in 2006, elicited a rare, blunt comment from the WTC in its newsletter that underlined its modus operandi: “The WTC is unwilling to encourage this type of elements.” Wevers’ Nabieva ½ variation in June was the most recent example of the inane code in action as her skill is valued the same as objectively less difficult release skills.
The vault is certainly not worth all of this for its huge score alone. Biles won both US Championships and Olympic trials without risking it and her coach, Laurent Landi, expressed clear doubt about completing it to On Her Turf: “People seem to forget that it’s a very, very dangerous skill … Just to have glory and being [in] the Code of Points, it’s not enough.” She will certainly not do so in qualifications or event finals.
On Thursday’s podium training in Tokyo, however, she did show it off. In the first attempt Biles flew into the sky but she over-rotated the vault and opted to roll out of it. She returned for a second attempt which she comfortably landed to her feet with a simple backwards step.
That she does not need to do it makes it even more worthwhile. It is a reflection of her growth from an impressionable teen eight years ago into a woman who understands her own greatness and the power in carrying herself accordingly. Biles has spent the last quadrennial looking beyond her competition and instead challenging herself to her limits and it has been beautiful. “I’m trying to be better than I was at the last meet, so I’m trying to beat myself,” said Biles recently to NBC.
That will be one of the great rivalries of this year’s Games – Simone v Simone – and this may be the last time it is ever seen. It should be savoured accordingly.
- Tokyo Olympic Games 2020
- Simone Biles
- Olympic Games
- US sports