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Simone Biles' radical excellence

Simone Biles' radical excellence

Posted: Jul 29, 2021 11:41 AM
Updated: Jul 29, 2021 11:41 AM

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The rhinestone goat -- have you seen it?

The bejeweled animal is on Simone Biles' leotards. Sometimes, it's on her hip; other times, on her shoulder or her back. Wherever the glittery goat is, though, the message remains the same: The 24-year-old is the Greatest of All Time.

That's not hyperbole. Biles is the most decorated American gymnast ever, a status that's undiminished despite her journey at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where she had the good, brave sense to withdraw from the team competition and the individual all-around final after a shaky start.

Biles' excellence stands out because it feels like an act of rebellion.

For decades, the sport was wrapped in a White, European-elitist aesthetic. There also was a firmly established expectation that girls and women be nonthreatening, docile and self-effacing -- lest they get the villain edit and be declared a diva.

But gymnastics is evolving, in large part because of figures such as Biles. Since 2013, she hasn't only redefined the lily-White sport like no one has before -- she's also refused to qualify her talent or ignore her needs. And she's encouraged others to follow suit.

She checks gymnastics' historical Whiteness

Biles isn't the first famous Black gymnast.

When I competed in gymnastics as a kid, in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was entirely in thrall to Betty Okino and Dominique Dawes (even now, I could watch the latter ricochet across the floor all day). I felt that the two giants extended an invitation to wannabes like me: There's room for you in this sport. At the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Gabrielle Douglas became the first Black American to secure the Olympic individual all-around title. And in February of this year, the world mourned the death of Dianne Durham, the first Black US national champion.

Still, for all their showstopping skill and considerable representational value, these athletes didn't unlock a new level in gymnastics, didn't push its boundaries. Biles, however, has transformed a sport that had previously always managed to keep Black gymnasts at a distance.

"She's a talent that's born once in a while. You have somebody who can do something we cannot even design on a paper," the legendary Nadia Comăneci said of Biles' unique ability to take full advantage of gymnastics' open-ended scoring system, to break it because the judges at times have no idea what to do about the difficulty of Biles' moves.

It ought to come as no surprise that the superstar has her detractors, or that sometimes their disdain veers right into racism.

In 2013, after Biles became the first Black American to capture the individual all-around title at the World Championships, the Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito quipped to the Italian media, "I told Vanessa (Ferrari) that next time we should also paint our skin Black, so then we could win, too."

Italian Gymnastics Federation spokesperson David Ciaralli made things worse when he tapped into the language of pseudoscience in trying to explain why Ferlito's racist remarks weren't racist.

"Carlotta was referring to a trend in gymnastics at this moment, which is going towards a technique that opens up new chances to athletes of color (well-known for power) while penalizing the more artistic Eastern European style that allowed Russians and Romanians to dominate the sport for years," Ciaralli wrote on Facebook.

Ferlito and Ciaralli later apologized. But their comments distilled -- neatly and queasily -- not only how racism can find refuge in dog whistles such as "European" and "artistic" (check out the writer Dvora Meyers' superb analysis on the topic) but also how profoundly Biles disrupted the world of gymnastics when she somersaulted into the senior ranks eight years ago.

She resists gender norms

Part of what makes Biles exceptional is the fact that she knows that she's No. 1, that there's never been anyone like her. She embraces her brilliance in a way that bucks gender norms.

The broader significance of this defiance isn't lost on the phenom.

"It's important to teach our female youth that it's OK to say, 'Yes, I am good at this,' and you don't hold back," as Biles put it to USA Today in a 2019 interview. "You only see the men doing it. And they're praised for it and the women are looked down upon for it. But I feel like it's good (to do) because once you realize you're confident and good at it, then you're even better at what you do."

Biles made a similar point earlier this year, when Marie Claire asked her about her goat-bedecked leotards.

"The idea was to hit back at the haters. I didn't feel like it was necessarily fair how they could keep saying whatever they wanted, but then if I said something, it wasn't fair," Biles said. "I want kids to learn that, yes, it's OK to acknowledge that you're good or even great at something."

It's the sort of encouragement that Biles gave to Olympic teammate Jordan Chiles. Just a few years ago, Chiles, frustrated by her performance, was ready to give up: "I didn't think the sport wanted me anymore," she told The New York Times. But then she talked with Biles, who cheered Chiles on and rekindled her love for gymnastics.

Biles uses her influence in other ways, too. In 2018, she joined hundreds of girls and women in coming forward to say how Larry Nassar, the disgraced former USA Gymnastics doctor, had sexually abused them over the course of 20 years. She's kept steady pressure on the sport's governing body to hold Nassar's enablers accountable.

And in 2020, in the wake of the police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans, Biles voiced her support for the resurgent Black Lives Matter movement: "We need justice for the Black community," she told Vogue. "With the peaceful protests, it's the start of change, but it's sad that it took all of this for people to listen."

She's also human

Complicating any discussion of elite-level gymnastics is, among many other things, the isolating pressure the athletes endure.

Biles has been open about the punishing weight of being the best, telling The New York Times ahead of the Tokyo Games that the happiest moment of her record-busting career has "probably" been her time off because of the constant physical and psychological strain of competing.

She echoed these sentiments after she withdrew from the team competition earlier this week.

"Whenever you get in a high-stress situation, you kind of freak out," Biles told reporters. "I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being."

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman backed her former teammate.

"I think sometimes people forget she is human, she has pains like all of us, she has stress," Raisman told NBC's "Today" show. "Simone has more pressure than any other gymnast I've ever seen in my lifetime."

So, yes, regardless of the outcome in Tokyo, Biles is the greatest of all time. But her GOAT-ness isn't just about the stratospheric flips she can throw. It's about much, much more -- her candor and her willingness to remind everyone that, before she's the GOAT, she's human. Acknowledging her humanity is a strength, too.

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