We have come to expect the transcendence of the Olympic Games. But it’s hard to compare all the heartbreaking triumphs of the past to what Simone Biles did on Tuesday on a raised timber beam 16 1/2 feet long and 4 inches wide.
Biles, 24, pulled himself together under the blinding lights of expectations to leave the Tokyo Games with a bronze medal on beam.
It brought to light an intoxicating mix of strength and fragility of one of the greatest gymnasts in history. Last week, Biles showed her vulnerability by stopping halfway through competition because she was not mentally ready for a risky jump.
On Tuesday, she floated across the narrow beam like the gymnast everyone had anticipated.
This is the image that defines the Tokyo Games. It’s hard to imagine that Biles’ journey to the bronze medal did not enter the pantheon of memorable Olympic moments.
“I didn’t expect to come away with the medal,” Biles said of his final act. “I was just going to do this for myself. And whatever happens, happens.
What happened was magical. Biles put on a medal-worthy show, knowing that all eyes weren’t sure if she could withstand the spotlight.
Biles danced across a beam a little wider than an iPhone 11 as if going for a Sunday walk. She culminated the last day of artistic gymnastics by landing with two backflips in the stooped position.
Biles placed his hands over his heart and left the stage to embrace his coach, teammates and opponents.
It was not the color of a medal. Or even win one. Biles single-handedly had started a conversation about athlete mental health and safety on a disproportionate stage that could forever change the way we view our sports heroes.
His decision to quit mid-competition last week in the team finals and his subsequent retirement from the individual finals overshadowed everything that was happening at Tokyo’s three-ring sports circus.
“She shed light on the way forward for gymnastics culture, and she takes us all with her on this journey,” said New Zealand historian Georgia Cervin, author of the gymnastics book “Degrees of Difficulty” .
The face of the Summer Olympics had endured too much suffering to go on no matter what America’s sponsors and sports officials wanted. Biles never went into hiding. She went to the arena every day to support her teammates.
Then she climbed onto the balance beam as the curtain closed on one of the Games’ flagship sports. She did it just for herself.
“It’s a new narrative for a new culture that is more sensitive to mental health issues and survivors of sexual assault trauma,” said Mark Dyreson, sports historian at Penn State.
Biles said she struggled with doubt as a survivor of the sexual abuse of convicted felon Larry Nassar, longtime U.S. National Team doctor and Michigan State team doctor. Nassar’s assault on hundreds of female gymnasts has become one of the worst sexual abuse sports scandals of all time.
While Olympic sponsors anointed her as the face of the Tokyo Games, Biles also struggled with muscle trauma resulting from an extra year of training for competition delayed by the coronavirus.
Leaving all the ghosts aside, Biles got on the beam and got down to business as she had done countless times before.
“I wouldn’t change a thing,” Biles told reporters. “We need to focus on ourselves as humans, not just the athletes, because sometimes we lose touch with our human feelings.”
Biles has gone beyond the limits of the typical sports narrative. We have already bathed in these triumphant tales that ignite passions for the larger context of competition.
There was Austrian skier Hermann “Hermann-ator” Maier in slow motion replay as he was out of control on the downhill track at the 1998 Nagano Games in Japan.
Somehow, Maier returned to the ski resort days later to win gold medals in super-G and giant slalom.
There was Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette who competed in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics two days after losing her mother to a sudden heart attack. Rochette won a bronze medal – Canada’s first in figure skating in 22 years – performing in front of tear-eyed fans who have forever linked grief and loss.
American athletes contributed a lot to the story, starting with Stanford alum Kerri Strug.
The 4-foot-7 gymnast sprained her ankle on her first jump with the team gold medal in play at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Despite the pain, Strug completed her second jump, which s ‘turned out to be unnecessary in ensuring that the United States defeated Russia for the first time in Olympic history. The Americans had already won before Strug took the second jump.
The fact has been overlooked for the time being. At that point, the story was too rich to be extinguished, especially after former coach Bela Karolyi picked up the tiny Strug in his arms and strolled around the arena to celebrate.
Speed skater Dan Jansen is also remembered in a context similar to Rochette’s. He was favorite to win the 500-meter race at the 1988 Calgary Games. Hours before the start, Jansen learned that his sister had died of cancer. The skater slipped and fell at the start of the race. He fell again in the 1,000-meter event.
In 1992 Jansen finished fourth, narrowly missing a bronze in the 500 sprint.
He competed in the Lillehammer Games in 1994 as the first person to break 36 seconds in the 500m. But he finished eighth in the race at the Winter Games.
In his last Olympic race, he found redemption, setting a world record in 1,000 meters and winning gold.
Biles’ successful exit on Tuesday has the potential to tell a bigger story than those of the past. He likely ends an Olympic career that includes four gold medals from Rio de Janeiro.
The Paris Games in 2024 no longer seem realistic for Biles. She had planned to embark on one event, maybe two, at age 27 in a sport dominated by teenagers. But on Tuesday, the seven-time medalist said she wanted to work on personal issues before considering other Olympics.
The self-assessment had already started as she climbed the balance beam at the Ariake Gymnastics Center.
“I just did this for me and me only,” Biles said.