Simone Biles is the greatest of all time, and was expected to lead the Team USA squad to another Olympic gold in the team event. But minutes into the competition on July 27, Biles sat on the sidelines, in earnest conversation with a trainer and then left the field of play.
She returned a few minutes later, but clearly not preparing to warm up for the next event. She hugged her teammates, put on her warm up jacket and pants, and minutes later USA Gymnastics (USAG) confirmed she had withdrawn from the team competition.
USAG said that Biles pulled out due to a “medical issue” and would be “assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.” Biles qualified to compete in the all-around event on July 29 and all four apparatus event finals, on Aug 1, 2, and 3. No announcement was made to nearly empty arena, as no fans were present who might need to know what was happening.
Without Biles, Team USA came close to outscoring the Russians—with one rotation to go, they were 0.8 points behind. But without Biles’ more difficult, and higher-scoring routines in the mix, along with costly mistakes, the U.S. ultimately fell nearly 3.5 points short and earned silver.
At a press conference following the event, Biles confirmed she was not injured but felt her poor vault would jeopardize the team’s chances for a medal. “I felt like it would be a little better to take a back seat, and work on my mindfulness,” she said. “I didn’t want the team to risk a medal because of my screw up.”
Biles admitted that the stress of competing at the Olympics, and perhaps even the accumulated burden of competing at a pandemic Olympics having lived through the past year of lockdowns and restrictions, might have finally taken their toll. Days after arriving in Tokyo, an alternate on the team tested positive for COVID-19, and another alternate was placed in isolation because she was a close contact. “Today was really stressful,” she said. “The workout this morning went okay, it was just the 5.5 hour wait—I was shaking, and barely napped. I’ve never felt like this going into a competition before. I tried to go out, have fun and after warming up in the back I felt a little better, but once I came out here, I felt, no, the mental is not there. I need to let the girls do it and focus on myself.”
It was a stunning turn of events, and an equally unexpected decision on Biles’ part, since the U.S. was widely seen as the team to beat—mainly due to her. Gymnastics and non-gymnastics fans alike were eager to see her gravity-defying skills on floor, beam and vault, but Biles withdrew after the first rotation. The final member of the three-woman team to vault, Biles took off down the runway, launched herself into the air, and then seemed to lose her bearings, twisting her head sideways on the way down and only completing one and a half of two and a half twists. She stepped forward on her landing and looked unhappy with her vault, but showed no outward signs of pain. Mentally, however, she was worrying about how her inevitable low score would affect the team’s standing, since all scores count in the three-up and three-count format. “I felt I robbed the team of a couple tenths and they could be higher in the rankings,” she said.
Biles then spoke with a trainer for several minutes, looking more matter-of-fact than emotional, and then left the arena floor with the trainer. She returned a few minutes later, by which time the U.S. team had moved on to warming up for the next rotation, on uneven bars. After hugging each of her teammates—Sunisa Lee, Jordan Chiles and Grace McCallum, Biles looked more relieved and became a sideline cheerleader, clapping her hands and jumping up and down with every successful move her teammates made.
And in her absence, Chiles, Lee and McCallum came through. With the three up-three count model, the U.S. initially chose to include Biles and McCallum in all four events, and rotated the remaining two—Chiles on vault and floor, and Lee on bars and beam. With Biles out, Chiles and Lee had to fill in where they hadn’t been planning to.
“There were definitely a lot of emotions going through our heads,” Lee said. “It’s hard to lose a teammate, especially at the Olympic Games. But I’m proud of all of us, going through so much, feeling stressed and putting a lot of pressure on ourselves. But we ended up coming back.”
Immediately after hearing Biles had withdrawn, McCallum jumped onto the uneven bars, pulling off a solid routine. The U.S. was in the same group as the Russians, who finished ahead of the U.S. in the qualifications, so the see-sawing point changes only added to the drama as the gymnasts from each country alternated on each event. Chiles stepped in for Biles on the uneven bars and completed another strong routine, setting the stage for Lee, who owns the most difficult routine of any gymnast in the competition. Lee performed her more challenging routine, with a start value of 6.8, and nailed it nearly flawlessly, earning a 15.4, which along with McCallum’s and Chiles’ scores, put the U.S. in second, 2.5 points behind the Russian team.
In the third rotation, Team USA moved to balance beam, with Chiles stepping in for Biles. Showing no signs of the nerves that plagued her performance on beam during qualifications, Chiles added in a more difficult double pike dismount to eek out some additional points and stuck the landing. Naturally expressive, Chiles pumped her arms and reveled with her teammates as they narrowed the gap to gold to 0.8 points.
Ending the night on floor exercise, McCallum, Chiles and Lee had a strong chance of making up those points—Lee earned silver at the 2019 world championships on floor behind Biles. Going first, however, McCallum stepped out of bounds on her second tumbling pass and Chiles also stepped out, then fell on her third tumbling run, which cost 0.6 points. Ultimately, the U.S. fell short of gold by 3.4 points.
Biles’ decision highlights the growing awareness of the mental well-being of athletes, in addition to their physical fitness. It comes as fellow Olympian, tennis star Naomi Osaka, recently withdrew from the French Open citing mental health concerns. Biles’ recent missteps at major competitions likely only contributed to the sense of pressure she puts on herself, since she rarely makes errors. At Olympic Trials, Biles faltered on three of the four events, barely saving her uneven bars routine, falling off the beam and stepping out of bounds on floor exercise. The mishaps continued in Tokyo, as she stepped off the mat on floor and vault during qualifications. She hinted that the combined effect of everything that makes the Olympics, and particularly this Olympics, a pressure cooker, might have finally hit her. “It’s been a really stressful Olympics as a whole; not having an audience—there are a lot of different variables. It’s been a long week, a long Olympic process, and a long year,” she said. “I think we are just a little stressed out. We should be out there having fun and sometimes that’s not the case.”
Biles said she would take things one day at a time in deciding whether to continue competing in Tokyo; Team USA has Wednesday morning off, which, she said, would be a “good mental rest.”
Biles’ stunning decision comes after a tumultuous five years that she and USAG have undergone since 2016. Biles is the only survivor of a sexual abuse scandal that has upturned USAG in the past five years who is still competing. In an interview with TIME before the Olympics began, Biles admitted that the postponement of the Games from last year weighed on her, as it would mean another year of dealing with the USAG and what the survivors feel is the organization’s lack of transparency and accountability.
USAG remains in bankruptcy and was de-certified by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (UOSPC) in 2018, after former national team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced on multiple charges of child pornography and sex crimes for sexually abusing athletes, including Biles, over several decades. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) began the decertification process over USAG’s failure to protect athletes from Nassar’s years-long abuse and for its lack of transparency in about early complaints about the doctor. But because of the bankruptcy, which was USAG’s attempt to resolve the costly lawsuits it now faces from dozens of gymnasts who are survivors of Nassar’s abuse, including Biles, USOPC has halted decertification procedures.
According to attorney John Manly, who represents more than 200 of the survivors, “the greatest frustration from my clients comes from the fact that none of the enablers to Larry Nassar in the Olympic movement have been held to account.” Steve Penny, USAG president at the time, has been indicted for evidence-tampering related to removal of documents during the Nassar investigation, but has not gone to trial because of COVID-19 delays. Members of USOPC who the survivors say were notified of the abuse and failed to hold USAG accountable, have also not been held accountable, says Manly. The national training camp system that brought together elite, world championship and Olympic level gymnasts each month from around the country to take advantage of intensive skills workshops has continued, but no longer at the Karolyi ranch in Houston run by former national team coordinator Martha Karolyi, known for her strict and demanding training style.
Whether the camps continue, and in what capacity, isn’t clear yet. How the women’s gymnastics program emerges from the scandal depends on how transparent USAG will be about its past, to ensure that it learns and changes unhealthy practices for the future. Already, the stunning testimony from dozens of survivors at Nassar’s sentencing in January 2018 has improved the culture in gyms around the country, not to mention the training camps for elite athletes. In addition to the sexual abuse that was prevalent at many gyms, numbers gymnasts have also stepped forward to report verbal and physical abuse by coaches who relied on domineering and demeaning training tactics. “The system I grew up in, the coaches motivated us—myself and my teammates on the national team—through fear,” says Jordyn Wieber, member of the gold-medal winning 2012 Olympic team, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, and now a head coach of women’s gymnastics at University of Arkansas. “It was fear we would disappoint our coaches, fear we would fail, fear we could get in trouble, fear we would be ignored. I wouldn’t say it’s the healthiest way.” At this year’s national championships, which Wieber attended as a recruiter, she already noticed dramatic changes in that culture. “More than anything it was the way the athletes interacted with each other—high fiving, leaning on one another. They were a little more free to be themselves, while I remember feeling like we couldn’t have too much fun and had to be serious. Based on what I saw, I do think things are getting a little better, and I definitely have hope.”
That’s the legacy that the survivors, which include the entire 2012 Olympic team, hope to leave on their sport. Biles has said that as the only remaining survivor still competing, she hopes her presence is a visible and constant reminder of what the USAG still owes all survivors—transparency, truth and accountability for its role in allowing Nassar to continue treating gymnasts. With Biles’ sudden withdrawal from the sport’s most prominent event, more questions likely will be raised about the support that USAG is, or isn’t, providing to its athletes and whether the disarrayed state of the organization is having a negative impact on athletes.
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