- Simone Biles continues to push the bounds of gymnastics – and physics – in her final year competing.
- Despite Biles’ unprecedented feats, her scoring potential in competition is restricted.
- Gymnastics leaders blame limits on concerns for safety, but Biles suspects otherwise.
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Simone Biles has been dominating her competition for her entire career.
And she could be crushing her opponents by even wider margins – if only the powers that be in international gymnastics would let her.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist made history at the US Classic this weekend when she landed a Yurchenko double pike vault. And even though the feat is so challenging – and dangerous – that no woman had ever dared to try it in competition before her, the authorities of elite gymnastics awarded Biles a score on par with many of her other, less difficult vaults.
“It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what they’ve done with other vault values,” United States women’s national team coordinator Tom Forster said of the scoring evaluation, per The New York Times. “I don’t know why they do that.”
Despite Biles’ unprecedented feats, her potential point totals in competition are significantly restricted
Scoring in high-level gymnastics is markedly different than in most other sports. Rather than athletes earning points throughout a performance, the decision-makers at the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) pre-assign scores to routines based on the difficulty of the skills involved. Then, judges evaluate execution in real-time, docking points from the potential total every time a gymnast makes a mistake during their program.
Because Biles regularly achieves physical feats other gymnasts can only dream of, the degree of difficulty associated with her routines – particularly on floor, balance beam, and vault – warrant some of the highest possible scores the FIG doles out. Biles enjoys a huge margin of error as a result; she can get away with faltering during a performance because her floor is higher than most of her opponents’ ceilings.
But that’s the system that the FIG established. So as she’s pulled off increasingly complex – and hazardous – skills, Biles expected her point values to increase accordingly. They haven’t.
“They had an open-ended code of points,” Biles said after the US Classic, per The Times. “And now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”
This weekend’s vault wasn’t the first skill the 24-year-old felt was undervalued by the FIG. Ahead of the 2019 World Championships, Biles expressed how “pissed off” she was over the gymnastics governing body’s “unfair” valuation of her eponymous balance beam dismount.
“Am I in a league of my own? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t credit me for what I’m doing,” Biles told NBC Sports at the time. “They keep asking us to do more difficulty and to give more artistry, give more harder skills. So we do, and then they don’t credit it, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Gymnastics leadership blames restrictions on safety, but Biles suspects otherwise
Biles suggested that the FIG has serially undervalued her skills because “they don’t want the field to be too far apart,” she told The Times. If the FIG keeps her provisional scores low, Biles’ thinking goes, than other gymnasts may have a fighting chance.
But there’s another force at play, and it’s one Biles acknowledged during the fight over her balance beam dismount two years ago. Rewarding harder, more perilous skills with significantly higher payouts incentivize athletes to take risks.
For Biles, there’s little downside to risky exploration; but she’s arguably the most athletic person on the planet. For other elite gymnasts – many of whom are still teenagers – experimenting with dangerous skills can become lethal with just the smallest of missteps.
And in response to Biles’ critique of her balance beam dismount valuation in 2019, the FIG’s leadership insisted that encouraging athletes to put themselves in harm’s way would be irresponsible.
“There is added risk in landing of double saltos for beam dismounts (with/without twists), including a potential landing on the neck,” the FIG statement read, per NBC Sports. “Reinforcing, there are many examples in the Code where decisions have been made to protect the gymnasts and preserve the direction of the discipline.”
Reward no longer dictates risk for Biles, who strives for new heights simply ‘because I can’
Without the incentive of a major point payout, one might suspect Biles would stop pushing the bounds of gymnastics – and physics – in her final year competing. Instead, she’s once again upped the stakes heading into her swan song at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.
Her Yurchenko double pike vault at the US Classic was just the latest example; Biles pulled off the historic feat knowing full well that she wouldn’t be compensated adequately.
“I feel like now we just have to get what we get because there’s no point in putting up a fight because they’re not going to reward it,” she said after the event, per The Times. “So we just have to take it and be quiet.”
So why does Biles continue to aim so high? She offered some insight to Will Graves in his profile for the Associated Press.
“Now, it’s just for myself.”