Women’s Gymnastics Is Blasting Into The Future, But Its Scoring Code Is Stuck In The Past
11:53 AM EDT on July 13, 2021
Here is an objective statement: Simone Biles debuted a Yurchenko double pike at the U.S. Classic in May. As always with gymnastics, the subjective part is where it gets complicated. Tom Forster, the USA Gymnastics women’s high performance director, announced that the provisional value assigned to the vault by the women’s technical committee (WTC) was a 6.6. Forster voiced his displeasure with the valuation, saying that he expected it to be 6.8. Biles, too, said that she felt it was too low. Everyone agreed that the move was phenomenal. The question, which was both obscure and vital, was what it was worth.
This debate led to a flurry of op-eds that declared, with absolute certainty, that this vault value was unjust, without bothering to offer up a rationale as to why it was inappropriate. One reporter even claimed that one didn’t even need to know the difference between two different vault entry styles to understand that Biles’ vault was being undervalued; the issue, as one astute person on the gymternet pointed out, is that understanding the rules is precisely what you need to know if you wish to challenge a score’s fairness and credibility. The combination of an all-time great and opaquely derived numbers with decimal points in them tends to elicit this kind of reaction.
I, as someone who spends a good deal of time thinking and writing about things like this, also honestly didn’t know what to think about that valuation at first. That is to say that I didn’t know how the women’s technical committee had arrived at a 6.6, and I also didn’t know why Forster and Biles felt that a 6.8 was more appropriate. I can’t claim to be an expert in the Code of Points—it’s too much math for my taste—but I started reaching out to people who knew the Code much better than I did, and read as widely as I could.
What I learned was that either a 6.6 or 6.8 could be justified though the general feeling was that 6.6 was on the low end of what would be considered acceptable for this particular vault; most of the people I consulted preferred 6.8. The details get gory from here—people I spoke with gave different reasons for why they thought the value should be 6.8, some noting that the current value of the vault doesn’t leave room for a somewhat easier tuck version of the Yurchenko double back. One argued there wasn’t enough daylight between the Produnova, which is the only other double salto vault in the women’s Code, and the Biles II. The former, which involves a forward rotation has been performed by several gymnasts since Elena Produnova first introduced it in 1999, is rated a 6.4, just two-tenths lower than the Yurchenko double pike. While the vast majority of Produnovas that have been performed since the original have been disastrous, it is a less technically challenging vault and there should be a greater separation between the two as there is in the men’s Code where .4 separates the same two vaults. It’s important to keep in mind that none of these values mean anything on their own. It’s all contextual, and these values are all temporary. They change from Code to Code. In the next version, set to take effect in 2022, all vaults will be devalued, in part to bring vault scores into line with the other events. The Produnova will drop down to 6.0. It is likely that the Biles II will also be devalued from 6.6, but the question is by how much.
There is something especially salient in this sea of gym nerdery, though. The reason that there were so many bad Produnovas over the years was because the skill, while incredibly hard to do well, is relatively easy to “chuck”—that is, to attempt knowing that it could be duffed—and still walk away alive. As a result, many gymnasts did just that; because the vault had once been overvalued at a 7.0, they were incentivized by the rules to just go for it. The Yurchenko double pike is far more technical, and no gymnast in their right mind would chuck it because a failed attempt could literally result in grievous injury or death. It is difficult enough that no one would attempt the vault unless they could actually do it.
That’s a lot of technical talk, but it’s absolutely the kind of thing that should’ve accompanied those early takes on Biles’ vault valuation. (If you want to know even more about the valuation, check out this excellent breakdown from Spencer Barnes of the Balance Beam Situation, who arrived at a 6.8 for the vault but also explains how the WTC might have arrived at 6.6. It’s hard to know, as the WTC 1) hasn’t offered any public explanation for why and how it got there, and 2) may yet bow to public outcry and give it a 6.8 in Tokyo.)
Wherever you fall on this particular skill valuation—I, too, am Team 6.8—it is clear that Biles’ provisional vault valuation was hardly an obvious call. So why did this particular valuation trigger a freakout so profound that people claimed FIG had actively banned her skills? Some of it has to do with Biles’ own history, and some of it has to do with the sport’s struggle to contain and quantify her genius. But it’s mostly about how confused and conflicted women’s gymnastics remains about moving beyond its fussy and antiquated roots.
To understand the reaction to Biles’ vault valuation in 2021, it helps to know what happened with her eponymous beam dismount in 2019. At the last world championships, Biles debuted a double twisting double back off the balance beam, a truly astounding skill. While it was rated H, the highest rated beam dismount in the women’s Code—the skills start with A for the easiest and move through the alphabet as the difficulty increases—this valuation deviated from the expected pattern of beam dismount valuations. Based on the value jump between the double back to full twisting double back, which leapt from D to G, Biles seemed in line for at least an I, if not a J. USA Gymnastics filed an inquiry into the valuation; Biles herself signaled her disapproval of the valuation on Twitter. It was far from the first time that a gymnast’s eponymous element was inexcusably and inexplicably lowballed, but I can’t think of another time when a gymnast or a national governing body challenged that valuation.
It was a decidedly good thing that Biles spoke up—why shouldn’t the WTC be forced to explain their rationale behind their decisions? Given Biles’ status, the WTC couldn’t simply brush her complaint off and ignore it as they might’ve with a lower profile athlete. They had to respond. And their explanation was, to put it in French, one of the official languages of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), tres bullshit. They claimed that their decision was about safety, that they didn’t want to incentivize gymnasts trying to do skills above their mastery level by giving too high a value to the Biles dismount. But given how few people attempt the full twisting double back dismount, despite how much higher valued it is than the one without a twist, it’s hard to imagine that a bunch of gymnasts would leapfrog from a double tuck to the Biles simply because it was rated an I or a J. The reason for this is that the only person who can perform the double double safely off the beam is Biles herself. These other gymnasts don’t have death wishes. Some skills you just cannot chuck.
When I wrote about the valuation of Biles’ dismount for the Guardian in 2019, I cited an example of another gymnast whose eponymous skill was lowballed: Liu Xuan of China. Back in 1995, she introduced a one-armed giant swing on the uneven bars. The WTC rated it a C, at a time when the highest possible rating was E. Liu stopped performing it shortly thereafter. Now the skill is only rated a B, and so basically worthless.
The fact that other gymnasts have also had their contributions undervalued by the WTC doesn’t make what happened to Biles okay. It’s wrong that it happened to Liu, and it’s also wrong that it happened to Biles—and to Andrea Maldonado, whose triple twisting front on floor exercise was criminally underrated, and also to Elisabeth Seitz, whose unique full twisting Shaposhnikova-style bar transition received the same value as one done with only half a twist. You do not need to be a gymnastics expert to work out that a skill with a full twist should be worth more than the same one with a half twist, but in the case of the Seitz on bars, it’s not.
In the coverage of the dismount debacle of 2019, I didn’t see other mainstream journalists point out that the WTC had given similarly unfair treatment to other gymnasts whose eponymous skills had been undervalued, and drastically so on some occasions. Nor did the fact that Biles has three other eponymous skills, all appropriately rated, get any notice. Biles really is sui generis in every way, but while her experiences are central to the broader story here, they aren’t the whole story.
Many gymnastically knowledgeable people pointed to how nonsensical the women’s Code of Points is, especially when compared to the men’s rulebook. Typically, if you know the value of a skill in the men’s Code, you can figure out what that skill, with an extra twist or two, would be worth. The men’s Code uses a straightforward linear progression, and while there are exceptions, they are few and far between. But when it comes to the women’s Code, the exceptions are the rule. It’s almost impossible to predict how the next variation on a skill will be valued without consulting the document itself. As often as not, a glance at that document only makes things more confusing. One Code expert I consulted wrote in an email, “The WAG [women’s artistic gymnastics] vault value tables are a dog’s breakfast, with no clearly evident logic.”
How did the women’s rulebook end up like this? Incompetence surely plays some sort of role, but it’s likely not the whole answer. If every deviation from the expected valuation progression is labeled as mere “incompetence,” then it will become impossible for a gymnast to prove when they’re being unfairly lowballed. And that lack of transparency can serve to mask more sinister forces, like racial bias and the very gymnastics-specific forms it can take.
So if we want to understand what’s going on with Simone Biles’ valuations, we have to include not just other gymnasts whose contributions were undervalued, but also decades of the sport’s history, going back even to its earliest days in the Olympic movement. Women’s gymnastics was created to be a feminine sport, and the femininity that it promoted was the white, Eurocentric kind. As the sport progressed from its very white, very dancey origins and increased in acrobatic complexity, the WTC and FIG held fast to a certain set of self-consciously feminine artistic ideals that were seen as being at odds with the more athletic components of gymnastics.
And so, instead of shaping the sport’s future, they created a set of rules with one eye cast back towards the past. That nostalgia for a bygone era didn’t lead to all these reboots of ’90s sitcoms on streaming services, but it did result in something equally bad: an institution caught off guard by every new development in the sport, and which responds to every such breakthrough by trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle. The WTC and FIG as a whole are simultaneously reactive and reactionary. As a result, boundary-pushing gymnasts like Biles, Liu, Maldonado, Seitz, and many others are being penalized by an institution that wants to party like it’s still 1969.
When women's gymnastics entered the modern Olympic pantheon in 1928, the options for female athletes were expanding, while not rapidly, but at least notably. The same year that women’s gymnastics made its debut, women were allowed to compete in a smattering of athletic events for the first time, too. The introduction of the women’s 100 meters, 4x100 relay, the 800, high jump, and discus throw to the Olympic slate was undoubtedly due to the success of Alice Milliat’s Women’s World Games, which were contested throughout the 1920s and into the ’30s. Milliat created this competition because the International Olympic Committee and International Federation of Athletic Federations (IAAF) refused to allow women to participate in track and field events. 22,000 people saw the first Women’s Games in Paris.
The IOC and the IAAF’s resistance to women participating in track and field disciplines was due to how those activities emphasized certain qualities—speed, strength, power, aggression—which were understood to be traditionally masculine. International sports powers were very concerned that participating in certain sports would have a masculinizing effect on women, perhaps even interfering with their ability to birth babies, the sole reason they were put on God’s green earth.
But there was a sport that conformed to the feminine ideals of the day: women’s gymnastics. It was “designed specifically for women to participate in sports in a gender appropriate way,” writes Dr. Georgia Cervin in Degrees of Difficulty: How Women’s Gymnastics Rose to Prominence and Fell from Grace. Cervin, in addition to her scholarship, is a former elite gymnast who represented New Zealand in international competition. “Discussions among IOC leaders reveal that women’s gymnastics was accepted into the Olympic movement because the feminine ideals it promoted made the sport appropriate for women,” Cervin writes. “Women performed light movements appropriate for their supposedly weak bodies, demonstrating passivity, softness, and grace.”
To run this new division of gymnastics—men’s gymnastics had been in the very first Games—FIG created what would eventually become known as the women’s technical committee. This was a rather progressive move on FIG’s part, since this committee was actually comprised of women at a time when women’s sports being brought into the Olympic pantheon were controlled by men. (In fact, the IAAF and IOC were quite explicit that they were allowing select track and field events into the Games in order to wrest control of them from Milliat and the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale.)
“The FIG followed the IOC’s request to create and control a women’s gymnastics program,” Cervin writes, “but it went further than required, uniquely establishing a governing committee consisting of only women. This committee designed women’s gymnastics around the fundamental principle that gymnasts must demonstrate femininity.”
“You see this as a trend running through all of women’s gymnastics for the rest of the century,” Cervin told me. “There are lines in the early Code of Points about how women should show harmonious flexibility and feminine grace.” When I interviewed Laddie Bakanic, a member of the bronze medal-winning 1948 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, she told me that she and her teammates could do skills like handstands and cartwheels on the balance beam, but were discouraged from doing them in competition.
Anyone who has watched women’s gymnastics from the late 1960s onward can attest to the fact that some of those so-called “masculine” qualities found their way into women’s gymnastics as more explosive skills and acrobatics were adopted by the women. But with every technical leap forward, the old debate over artistry versus acrobatics resurfaced anew. Soviet Ludmilla Tourischeva was penalized for doing too much in the way of acrobatics right up until she wasn’t, at which point she started winning. (She’s the 1972 Olympic all-around champion.) Olga Korbut, the darling of the 1972 Olympics, was not beloved by the women’s technical committee due to the risky elements she introduced. While safety was one of the WTC’s concerns when it came to Korbut’s skills, they were also disturbed by how her more daring elements, such as the back tuck on the balance beam, disrupted the flow of a routine.
Before she performed her most challenging elements, Korbut paused to prepare. “The committee clarified that the backward somersault was especially dangerous and undesirable, and attempted to outlaw the skill because it was not an element ‘peculiar to the beam,’” Cervin writes. What they meant by that was that acrobatic elements belonged on the floor, and nowhere else. Renald Knysh, Korbut’s coach, whom she and others would later accuse of sexual abuse, believed that any skill that could be performed on the floor could be brought to the other apparatuses. Hence Korbut’s standing backflip on bars and her back tuck on the balance beam. (Knysh has denied the allegations.)
Korbut had limited venues in which to voice her displeasure about the threatened ban on her skills, but she did tell the Associated Press that “if the decision is put into effect, then I simply do not see any place for myself in gymnastics.” Basically, Korbut, who was then the most famous gymnast in the world, threatened to retire if the WTC banned her skills. It seems that 2019 wasn’t the first time that the WTC was at odds with the sport’s biggest star. It’s hard to overstate just how big of a star Korbut was in the early ’70s, especially in the West. She even met with President Richard Nixon during one of her American tours with the Soviet gymnasts.
“The question of (masculine) risk versus (feminine) artistry was finally brought before the FIG General Assembly in 1975,” Cervin writes. “President Arthur Gander told delegates, ‘We should perhaps now ask ourselves if the moment has not now arrived when we should mitigate the trend towards ‘risk’ and ‘difficulty’ which are rapidly becoming more important than deportment and execution. We should take care that artistic gymnastics do not degenerate into pure acrobatics with risk to life and limb.’”
While Gander’s concern for the safety of the athletes was touching, the women, in most instances, were simply adopting acrobatic elements that had been performed by the men for several years. The difference was that acrobatics weren’t seen as being at odds with the purpose of men’s gymnastics, which has its origins in militaristic training of the 18th and 19th centuries. Similarly, the men’s technical committee didn’t feel the need to intervene on behalf of male gymnasts’ safety because those male gymnasts, in their quest to add more flips and twists, weren’t seen as betraying the core values of their sport. (And it is an almost entirely different sport—there is very little crossover between the men’s apparatuses and the women’s.) The concern for the athletes’ well-being that Gander and others were expressing for female gymnasts was, in other words, bound up entirely in their gender. What was appropriate for the men wasn’t appropriate for the women, because the women’s sport had a different mandate from the very beginning.
Despite all this hand-wringing, the WTC started to formally increase the demands for difficulty. In the 1970 version of the Code of Points, the gymnasts had to demonstrate “‘difficulty and connections’ even specifically required acrobatics on the floor,’” Cervin notes. The march towards greater acrobatic complexity could not be stopped. By the 1960s, Cervin told me, “the limits of women’s gymnastics as a non-acrobatic sport had been reached. There’s only so many leaps and turns and walkovers you can do before you need to start getting airborne.” This transformed the narrative of the sport into the one still in use: Every generation of gymnasts does more flips and twists than the preceding one. Nobody embodies that ethos better than Simone “Let Me Throw Another Twist On That” Biles.
In the years since Korbut called FIG’s bluff, a lot has changed for women’s gymnastics. But the tension that Cervin describes persists between the sport’s early mandate to be a “feminine” sport, whatever the hell that means, and its evolutionary push towards greater risk and acrobatic complexity. A major change to gymnastics’ scoring system has only made it harder to miss.
In 2006, after a major judging scandal at the 2004 Olympics threw the results of the men’s all-around into chaos, the FIG adopted an allegedly open-ended scoring system. Prior to the change, all elements of the performance—the difficulty and execution—were expressed by a single number, the 10.0. In effect, the 10.0 served as a scoring cap, which often meant that gymnasts who went above and beyond, as Biles is wont to do, weren’t rewarded for their innovation and daring. For example, at the 1992 Olympics, a full twisting Yurchenko on vault carried the same tariff as a double twisting Yurchenko: a 10. This means that if the gymnast performing either vault hit it perfectly, the maximum score they could get was a 10. As with Seitz’s undervalued uneven bars transition, the inherent unfairness in this situation is easy to grasp.
Since the scoring change was implemented, gymnasts started receiving two marks, one for difficulty and one for execution, that were then added together for the final score. That’s how you end up with numbers like 13.133. That doesn’t have the same ring to it as a 9.9 but, ideally, the awkward string of numbers should do a better job of accounting for what a gymnast actually did out on the floor. Or beam. Or vault.
With the separation of the scores, a gymnast can be rewarded for their daring on one hand and held accountable for how well they actually perform those risky skills on the other. Before, if judges wished to reward a truly groundbreaking gymnast who went above and beyond the rules, they might be tempted to look the other way on execution deductions, since sometimes an increase in risk and difficulty could mean a deterioration in execution. In theory, a gymnast with a lower degree of difficulty who performs sublimely should be able to match a gymnast with a higher D score but weaker execution. (I say “in theory” because that would mean that the execution judges are doing their jobs properly, and that isn’t always the case.) The challenge presented by a world-historic genius like Biles is that her execution hasn’t suffered a bit as she has increased her difficulty over the years—she’s just as clean on the astoundingly difficult skills as on the easier ones. This is one of the many things that makes her such a remarkable gymnast, and it is why she has become unbeatable over the past eight years.
This new system didn’t end the exhausting and unending debate over the direction of women’s gymnastics, of course. The old gripe’s new expression manifests as concerns about lack of “artistry,” the term that seems to have replaced “feminine” or “femininity” in the discourse. These artistry qualms have been deployed in ways that often seem to hinge on body type and race, not just performance quality and engagement level. Thinner, leaner gymnasts received praise for their “long lines” and “artistry,” and for possessing the “international look that the judges love.” Most of the gymnasts described this way were white.
After Biles won her first world title in 2013, the majority of the media attention she received was about the racist comments that the Italian Gymnastics Federation made about her. In defending a gymnast who suggested that donning blackface might help her win next time, the Italian spokesperson said, “The Code of Points is opening chances for colored people (known to be more powerful) and penalizing the typical Eastern European elegance, which, when gymnastics was more artistic and less acrobatic, allowed Russian and Romania to dominate the field.” Anyone who could say this with a straight face clearly hasn’t watched Romania’s 1978 floor lineup, but then anyone who would say it aloud in 2013 had a number of other urgent issues.
Shortly after Biles’ first world championships win, Nellie Kim, then the president of the WTC, without not specifically mentioning Biles by name, said, “I feel uneasy when gymnasts with an athletic, not gymnastic body, become world champions. Their performances lack elegance, finesse.” It’s both hard and rather nauseatingly easy to figure out what Kim means in this athletic vs. gymnastic comparison. By the standard that matters most, Biles possesses the ultimate gymnastics body. I mean, have you seen her do gymnastics?
Anyway, this was how the debut of the greatest athlete in the sport’s history was welcomed by the international gymnastics community and the sport’s administration.
Even after Biles established herself as the greatest in 2016 with four golds at the Olympics, Bruno Grandi, who was then the president of FIG, said of the floor exercise final results, “The only thing with which I don’t agree with the judges, and it’s a personal opinion and not a criticism—for me the gymnastics of the second American [Aly Raisman] is more artistic than the first [Simone Biles]. The first, it’s acrobatics.” It’s telling that he singles out a white gymnast, Raisman, for being artistic in comparison to Biles, whom he dubs as merely “acrobatic.” Raisman was a wonderful gymnast, but she was also never known for being particularly artistic. She was known, in fact, for her acrobatics, and became the 2012 Olympic champion on floor exercise on the strength of her tumbling. Biles, for her part, was much more polished than Raisman in terms of form and execution. But then it might not just be about the routines, here.
While there have been more Black gymnasts competing over the last few decades, and especially over the past 10 years, the sport has only grudgingly made room for them. They will allow that they are powerful—which, of course, isn’t true for all Black gymnasts, just like being graceful isn’t somehow a natural state of being for white gymnasts—but gymnasts like Biles are still often talked about as though they’re spoilers, or interlopers; the unspoken judgment is that their arrival has transformed gymnastics, and not for the better. The implication is that the sport, once a bastion of white womanhood—and then white girlhood—has now moved so far from its roots that it’ll never again be what it once was. As though remaining that way was even desirable, and as if a sport that stopped growing was doing anything but dying.
Even skill representations in the Code of Points don’t account for the diversity among gymnasts. Cervin credited the performance studies scholar Shani Skakur-Bruno for observing that the Code of Points’ illustrations are of white gymnasts. “Although it is intended to be a neutral illustration without facial features, the gymnast’s hair is straight and pulled back into a ponytail, which precludes many non-white hair types and styles,” Cervin writes. “The illustrations [reflect] expectations of performance based on ideals of white womanhood.”
Add to all of this anti-Blackness the fact that there have been many questionable comments and a pattern of excessive censure from media and officials alike directed at Chinese gymnasts. I remember watching the Olympics in the 1990s and hearing the commentators speak about how the Chinese leotards didn’t fit as well as those of other countries and wondering why, to my eye, they seemed to fit as well as all the rest. There were also comments about their music and floor choreography although, once again, their floor routines seemed no better and no worse than everyone else’s. (Except for perhaps the Soviets, but then everyone was artistically inferior to the late-’80s/early-’90s USSR team, and that includes the Romanians, the Americans, everyone. I mean, Olga Strazheva performed a bizarre routine to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Svetlana Boguinskaia did what can only be described as “bondage choreography” to “Bolero.” Iconic.)
Grandi singled out China and Japan in his comments about choreography and artistry. After accusing China of “robotic-style training” at a time when the U.S. was winning under the domineering tutelage of Martha Karolyi, he praised Japan for being willing to adapt and change—by which he meant more closely align themselves with so-called “Western” styles. “They (Japan) have improved the construction of their exercises, leaving behind Eastern-style choreographies to move towards the West—that is to say more harmony, imagination, creativity.”
Donatella Saachi, the current president of the WTC, made somewhat similar comments about Chinese expressiveness on floor exercise, saying that “it’s not the nature of the country to show emotions” in a podcast interview. I hope this doesn’t need to be said, but this is outlandishly backwards bullshit. A routine’s artistic success really depends on the gymnast, the music, and the choreography; I don’t know about you, but I think Jiang Yuyuan is doing a pretty great job expressing herself in her 2008 Olympic floor routine.
Even the Chinese team’s long-admired prowess on the uneven bars—their very first world champion, Ma Yanhong in 1979, was noted for her mastery and precision—has come under attack. The skills that the Chinese gymnasts have innovated, such as pirouettes with challenging grips that require extreme amounts of shoulder flexibility, have seen their values capped at E, regardless of the type of grip they’re performed in. (Some grip positions are more difficult than others; while the Chinese have mastered every type, they don’t really get credit for this.) The WTC has instead favored a big-swinging, transition-heavy style innovated by the Russians and Great Britain’s Beth Tweddle. While this happens to match my particular preference as a fan, there’s no good reason why there shouldn’t be room in the Code to reward both approaches, especially since the Chinese approach was undoubtedly both difficult and beautiful. Saachi has even spoken about how pleased she is that the Chinese have started to move away from their own original elements—which get hit with deductions since it’s virtually impossible to land these pirouettes on top of handstand, which is now how they’re supposed to be done—towards the big-swinging transitions. The result, however satisfying to Saachi, has meant less diversity of skills on the uneven bars. The range of valuable elements has narrowed. And in the case of Seitz’s skill, bar transitions have essentially been capped in value.
Seitz is white and from Germany, so racism and Eurocentrism can’t account for all of the boneheaded decisions of the WTC. Other white gymnasts, most notably Korbut, have also been subject to similar treatment. WTC’s fretting over the “direction of the sport” is vast enough to ensnare all kinds of innocents.
The WTC seems to have what Barnes has aptly described as “open-ended cold feet.” Rather than truly explore what it means to have an open-ended scoring system, they get nervous, and then conservative. They bunt when they should swing for the fences. It’s minimal progress, if progress all the same, and with the 6.6, they were at least in the right ballpark. But once again, they showed their squeamishness with the open-ended scoring and the direction that the sport is headed in.
The most fundamental problem here is that the WTC never truly embraced the open-ended scoring system. The WTC is a bit like me when I refuse to download a new iOS and then find that some of my apps don’t run as well—or open at all. The WTC is running on an antique operating system, and doing so in accordance with old and at times problematic values.
I can’t personally say whether her vault’s valuation was an explicit attack on Biles by an institution that has been ambivalent about her and her dominance, at best, and racist at worst. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence, and Biles has been quite adamant that, when it comes to her lowballed beam dismount, she believes it is about her. “I'm almost 99.9 percent sure if any other athlete were to do it besides me they would give it correct credit,” Biles said in the new docuseries Simone vs. Herself. “But since I'm already way ahead of everybody they kind of want to pull it back, because sometimes they don't think it's fair that I win all the time.” But her willingness to demand an explanation for her valuations has served not only to highlight problems with her skills’ values, but stubborn problems with the women’s governing body that have been there from the very beginning. The WTC thinks it's their job to determine the direction of the sport, which has always meant keeping one foot firmly and willfully rooted in the past. But micromanaging the sport is not their job, or at least it shouldn’t be. It should be up to the athletes to determine in which directions—and there can and absolutely should be more than one—women’s gymnastics will go.
“Because I can,” Biles told reporters about why she was going to do the Yurchenko double pike, despite that lower-than-expected valuation. If the WTC can finally figure out how to shepherd the sport into the future, or even just stop determinedly confining it to the past, maybe the greatest gymnast of all-time wouldn’t feel that she is performing her innovative skills to spite them. Who knows what we might see then?
Dvora Meyers is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. She writes about gymnastics and other topics in her newsletter, Unorthodox Gymnastics.
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