By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
Simone Biles’ performance on the balance beam didn’t even last two minutes.
The stadium was nearly empty. Dawn hadn’t broken in the United States, and much of the country was still asleep Tuesday when she competed in the last of the women’s artistic gymnastics finals at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Biles’ return to the spotlight after withdrawing from earlier events was blissfully anti-climactic. It was just a little bit boring for its lack of suspense.
That was a singular victory for us all.
Biles competed after sidelining herself last week; a decision that placed her mental well-being, and thus her entire well-being, above the daunting momentum of televised competition, sports mythology and national bravado.
For her efforts, she won a bronze medal. Two Chinese gymnasts, Guan Chenchen and Tang Xijing won gold and silver.
The finals weren’t dramatic or particularly mesmerizing. And that was good. After all that the past year has brought, after all the trauma and challenges, it a fine thing to put sports into perspective, to realize a victory in one arena is simply that: A single win that doesn’t crowd out room for many, many losses.
Biles proved yet again that she is a tremendous athlete. She showed resilience and determination. But mostly she made it clear that sports is not a matter of life or death. It’s neither a battle nor a war. A game is not proof of character or integrity. Athletic prowess is not evidence of how one handles stress and fear. Instead it can sometimes be a tool for camouflaging insecurities. Greatness is not synonymous with perfection. Excellence can co-exist with foibles and weaknesses.
Biles and seven other competitors leaped and wolf-turned on the four-inch wide balance beam in a display of skill and grit that made their effort look easy until one of them would wobble. That little mistake, that tiny fumble, would remind everyone just how difficult the task was that these mere humans were taking on.
Women’s gymnastics remains such a curiously bedazzled sport. Its aesthetics and flourishes can easily distract from the stunning athleticism of its participants. For the uninitiated, the stylizations emphasize grace and weightless flight. The gymnasts do not grunt with effort like the women who spin like a top and fling the hammer or discus far into the distance. The gymnasts don’t finish their routine and sprawl on the ground gasping for air like a depleted sprinter. They have no racket that they can throw into the stands like a disappointed or frustrated tennis player.
Gymnasts smile and hug and wave. Their strength and stamina are undeniable but the loud, messy evidence of their effort — both physical and mental — goes largely unseen. All too often, we do not believe what we cannot see.
While the gymnasts’ arms flutter and spin, their battered feet grip that tiny bar as they swivel into backflips. Their breath is controlled; their abdominal muscles braced. Their sense of themselves moving dangerously high and fast through space is precise.
As Biles competed on the balance beam, one could hear the beat-beat-beat of music echoing in the background. She flipped, spun, piked and excelled. Because these are the pandemic-era games, there was no thunderous applause and riotous cheers when she finished. She landed back on terra firma in relative quiet. She smiled and put her hand to her heart. Other athletes embraced her. In the moment, the victory belonged to her; but also to other gymnasts and sportspeople and singular individuals who know what it’s like when their success becomes their identity, when their accomplishments hang like ever-present droplets in the air leaving no room to breathe.
Social media enthused that Biles was back. It was filled with the usual incantations about her being flawless and perfect and the greatest of all time. For weeks now, America has been a nation of devoted gymnastics fans; a country full of experts on dismounts, a nation speaking knowingly about “twisties,” that alarming disconnect between brain and body that afflicted Biles and that leaves a gymnast disoriented in midair.
Biles had been heartened by the support of her fans. She wrote that she’d finally been able to see that she was more than her “accomplishments and gymnastics.” It was a realization that had eluded the 24-year-old.
Biles, it seems, learned a lot from her decision to de-prioritize gymnastics. It may be that her relationship with her sport is forever altered. The shock over Biles’s withdrawal led to more full-throated conversations about mental health and what athletes may or may not owe their fans. As these Olympics have unfolded with few folks in attendance and without the usual sea of national flags and choruses of patriotic cheers, the contract between athletes and fans has been less obvious. It has been a long distance relationship. A virtual connection.
The balance beam finals — low-key, quiet, underwhelming -— was instructive. Perhaps they were a start to a fresh relationship in which athletes are not gods, heroes or goats. Athleticism is a skill and a gift. It makes fans believe in the human capacity to astonish and inspire. Even at the Olympics, greatness is reassuringly human scale.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.