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U.S. gymnast Simone Biles performs on the balance beam in the final for women's artist gymnastics apparatus at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 3, 2021.

Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

There is an alternate universe in which Simone Biles shows up in Tokyo, feels great and wins six gold medals.

That version of Ms. Biles goes front page for a couple of days, but it doesn’t take long before headline writers run out of ways to say, “Amazing!” By the time we reach this point in the proceedings, people are getting a little weary of so much sustained excellence.

Alterna-Biles flies home, does the talk shows, goes to the White House and then what? There are no more mountains to vault. That Ms. Biles doesn’t end in Japan, but she begins to.

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Instead, things went wrong for Ms. Biles here, and something more interesting happened.

On Tuesday, Ms. Biles reappeared after a week to compete in her one and only individual competition of the Tokyo Games.

The balance beam isn’t Ms. Biles’s best discipline. She’s only won – pffft – three world championships in it. At the Rio Games in 2016, the beam was the only individual event in which Ms. Biles didn’t place first.

In pro sports, a reveal as big as Tuesday night’s would have taken hours to get going. At an Olympic gymnastics competition, it was wedged between men’s parallel bars and horizontal bars.

Ms. Biles was the third woman up. No prelims. She got up there, flipped around with the sort of ease you bring to staying upright on sidewalks, hit a landing and put her hand to her heart. Fin.

Did she win? No. She was in second place after her turn. She finished third behind the event’s last competitor and winner, Guan Chenchen, and silver medalist Tang Xijing.

After Ms. Guan planted her routine, as is the saccharine custom of gymnastics, Ms. Biles lined up with everyone else to hug her. Even poor Ellie Black, the Canadian that Ms. Guan had just knocked off the podium, was expected to chase the Chinese teen winner around for a post-gut-punch embrace.

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Biles gives a hug to gold medalist Guan Chenchen of China.

Gregory Bull/The Associated Press

Afterward, Ms. Biles said she’d decided at the last minute to change her dismount to one she hasn’t used in years. “On the beam is easy. I’ve always been able to do it,” Ms. Biles said. “It’s just coming off.”

Ho hum. Tough week, bunch of stuff went wrong, had to scramble last minute, finished third best in the entire world at something. You know how it goes.

If Ms. Biles is disappointed, she needn’t be. She has succeeded here in ways that – forget about “unlikely” – were uninvented a week ago.

She went to Tokyo as a very famous athlete. Had things gone to plan, she would have left a little more famous. Now she has become something much bigger than that.

This was about more than a debate about the perils of fame, or a disingenuous conversation about what athletes owe their teammates, or even about mental health. Those aren’t new conversations.

What was new was the most observed athlete in the world, in the very moment that observation was occurring, turning to the audience and saying, “You do realize I’m a person, right?”

Aug. 3's event was a dramatic return to the Games for Biles, who bowed out of several competitions due to concerns about her mental health.

Mike Blake/Reuters

Athletes are always talking to us. They never shut up about the big play or how being traded feels. But we don’t hear from them while they’re on the field of play, and certainly not so that they describe their fears and vulnerabilities to us.

When the camera was on her, Ms. Biles took hold of it, turned it just so, and showed the audience how things look from her point of view.

Speaking without affect or apology, she made an easy-to-understand argument – that just because this looks like fun, that doesn’t mean it is fun.

Revolutions start when the middle class gets on board. That’s who Ms. Biles was talking to – the overprogrammed kids who are up at all hours to get to hockey practice; the parents who feel like they have to keep up with the after-school-activity Joneses down the block; the people with enough spare time and disposable income to devote themselves talmudically to following the hometown team.

These groups are the foundation of the system that created Ms. Biles. She is every soccer mom’s and football dad’s fantasy of accomplishment.

She just got to the highest peak of that system and said, “No thanks.” That is revolutionary.

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Biles watches from the stands at July 29's women's all-around final, which she chose not to compete in.

Mike Blake/Reuters

What happened next was more so. Despite what celebrities wanted people to believe on Instagram – “Only I, another famous person, understand what you are going through, Simone. Don’t let the peasants get you down” – there was no blowback. The complete opposite, in fact. Every tastemaker everywhere rushed in to embrace Ms. Biles.

Far more important, real people got it. People who don’t care about sports got it. People who hate the rich and famous got it.

Because everybody has had a really bad day at work, and everybody gets scared sometimes.

That made sense to people. If the reporting of this incident was needlessly breathless (pulling yourself out of a major sports meet takes guts, but it’s not an act of superhuman bravery) none of that is Ms. Biles’s fault. Despite the heat coming off the takes, she kept a cool head.

As a result, the Sports Industrial Complex was bent to Ms. Biles’s humanist perspective. She quit on the Olympics during their biannual sweeps season, and even the Olympics was out there saying, “Congratulations, and thank you for sinking our ratings!”

That is something more than fame or influence. That is control.

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Biles holds her bronze medal alongside Guan and silver medalist Tang Xijing.

Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

In that alternate universe, Ms. Biles matters less as you read this than she did when she was doing it. Her days of being watched and listened to are coming to an end.

This column is wondering whether she can be considered the greatest Olympian in history, what with that bronze screwing up her gold straight (answer: no, because this event’s meaning is too nuanced to be defined by wins alone).

And that is probably a wrap on Simone Biles as a thing. Maybe she’d pop up on a future Olympics broadcast or become a correspondent-at-large for NBC. But outside her milieu, like a lot of other really great amateur athletes, pretty soon she’d be hard to place.

Now Ms. Biles is something else entirely. Once she gets home from Tokyo, her options are panoptic.

Obviously, she can have any job or deal she wants. That’s the least of it.

If she wants to, she can lead a movement. She can promote worthy causes and help people. She might even speak for a generation.

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As possible outcomes go, it sounds a little better than a grip-and-grin on the White House lawn and then having to go look for a job.


visual guide

How Olympic gymnastics works

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Clubs

Bal

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Men

Women

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

AUGUST

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Clubs

Bal

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Men

Women

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

Men

Women

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS

SCHEDULE

Qualification

Medal

JULY

AUGUST

23

24

25

26

27

28

29

30

31

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

Artistic

Rhythmic

Trampoline

One of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and daring sports, gymnastics tests athletes’ balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance. Acrobatic feats such as high-flying tumbles, somersaults, flips, spins and handstands are performed on special apparatus.

RHYTHMIC

Rhythmic gymnasts possess strength, speed, skill, flexibility and are capable of profound and expressive beauty. Gymnasts are scored on the artistry of their performances, which are set to music, and the skill with which they execute difficult manoeuvres with handheld apparatus.

Individual

Group

Women

Equipment

Ribbon

Ball

Clubs

Hoop

ARTISTIC

Athletes perform short routines and are judged on the difficulty and execution of each performance.

Individual

Team

Beam

Floor

Exercise

Horizontal

Bars

Men

Women

Parallel

Bars

Pommel

Horse

Rings

Uneven

Bars

Vault

Men

Women

TRAMPOLINE

Gymnasts spring to heights of up to 10 m and perform a series of short routines containing a variety ovf twists, bounces and somersaults.

Individual

Men

Women

The trampoline itself consists of a rectangular ‘bed’ made from a woven synthetic fabric and measuring 4.28 m x 2.14 m. The bed is attached to a frame with steel springs so that its recoil action propels performers high into the air.

SOURCE: REUTERS


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