Simone Biles, of the United States, waits for her turn to perform during the artistic gymnastics women's final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Simone Biles explains why she withdrew from team finals
03:00 - Source: Tokyo 2020

Editor’s Note: Amy Bass (@bassab1) is a professor of sport studies at Manhattanville College and the author of “One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Together” and “Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete,” among other titles. The views expressed here are solely hers. Read more opinion on CNN.

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Just days before Friday’s Opening Ceremony, news broke that a member of the US Women’s Gymnastics team had tested positive for Covid-19. I have no doubt that many of us had the same reaction:

Amy Bass

Please not her please not her please not her please not her.

Please. Let it not be her.

Simone Biles. She with the rhinestone goat emblazoned on her leotard. She with skills so mad that they don’t even score them properly, allegedly out of fear that others will try to do what she does and get hurt, and, according to Biles, to keep the field from being too far apart, to keep her from too dominant, ensuring that when she competes, it is usually against herself, not anyone else.

But on Tuesday in Tokyo, Simone Biles reminded all of us that while she might own four Olympic golds and 25 world medals, making her the most decorated gymnast in history, she is, indeed, human.

Her lesson began on Sunday, actually, when the American women qualified for the finals of the team competition in second place behind the Russian squad. While scores start over for the finals, and Biles qualified in all of her event finals, nothing felt right. Things just felt off, for Biles and the rest of the US team.

That feeling returned after her vault on Tuesday night. She appeared to, as gymnasts say, get lost in the air. The greatest vaulter in the world, the one who shared on Instagram that she felt the “weight of the world on her shoulders,” failed to pull off her intended trick, a Yurchenko with 2.5 twists, not her most difficult move by far.

Instead, she threw 1.5 twists and bumbled her landing. The subsequent score of 13.766 – a score most gymnasts would be pleased with – was exceptionally low for her, and a far cry from her historic Yurchenko double pike at the US Classic not long ago.

As the “gymternet” exploded, with Twitter following every step Biles took as she talked to the trainer, then the coach, left the floor and then returned, we knew that what went down on Sunday was no fluke: All was not right with the GOAT. Soon enough, USA Gymnastics gave official word: “Simone Biles has withdrawn from the team final competition due to a medical issue. She will be assessed daily to determine medical clearance for future competitions.”

Of all the GOAT things that Simone Biles has ever done, perhaps looking at the trainer and announcing that she could not continue? That might be the greatest. There would be no soldiering on. It was done. She knew it and had the strength to say it. “I just felt like it would be a little bit better to take a back seat and work on my mindfulness,” the 24-year-old later said. “I knew that the girls would do an absolutely great job.”

While perhaps no athlete looks as solitary, as intense, as a gymnast on the beam, gymnastics is, indeed, a team sport. And with Biles – who has dominated the sport for eight long years, a span that is difficult to wrap one’s head around – out, her team came charging back. As Biles’ hand grips came off, the first indication that the uneven bars were not in her immediate future, Jordan Chiles donned hers. Chiles woke up Tuesday morning with no plans of hopping on those bars. But she killed it. Teammate Suni Lee woke up without a plan for floor; but she killed it too.

There was a time in 2017 when Chiles was ready to leave gymnastics behind, head to college, pursue other interests. But Simone Biles said nope – not today. She brought Chiles to Texas to train with her at World Champions Centre with her coaches, Cecile and Laurent Landi, folks known to encourage balance in their athletes’ lives, a dramatic transition from the style of the Karolyis, and from the fact that these young women compete for an organizing body that looked the other way, enabled, the sexual abuse of its own athletes.

Chiles, like her teammates, had a rough debut in Tokyo, falling to her hands and knees after her dismount from the beam – a costly error. Biles was at her side, comforting her, demonstrating grace and sportsmanship under pressure. This is what the great ones do. They make sure they are not the only one to succeed. They make sure they are not the last. They make sure that when they leave the floor, whether in injury or anguish, retirement or, as we saw with 46-year-old vault legend Oksana Chusovitina, to say one last goodbye, that there will be more to come.

Jordan Chiles and Simone Biles of Team United States react during the Women's Team Final on day four of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

In the end, the women of the Russian Olympic Committee won team gold – to match the one secured by their men’s team this week, the first since the early 1990s – by over three points, a huge margin. It wasn’t just Biles’ flubbed vault. It wasn’t Chiles’s fall on her third tumbling pass on the floor. Just as they’d been in qualifiers, the Russians were good. And the US women – yes, especially without Biles and the degrees of difficulty she brings with her – weren’t perfect.

To be sure, Covid is not blameless here. Covid prevented training. Covid prevented competition. Covid, as it has for us all, put untold pressures on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of these athletes.

Before the US Classic, Biles hadn’t competed in 19 months – 587 days. Perhaps most importantly for the Games themselves, Covid prevented the support systems of the athletes from being there, cheering from their seats, providing hugs when needed. As much joy as the folks from Seward, Alaska, have brought all of us with footage from their watch party in support of swimming phenom Lydia Jacoby, parents and friends aren’t where they are supposed to be at these Games.

The US women didn’t lose gold on Tuesday. They won silver, and they did it playing the game without their most valuable player. “I didn’t do my job,” said Biles. “They stepped up and they did what they needed to do and more, especially last minute […] This medal is all of them and the coaches and it has nothing to do with me because they did it without me.”

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    And one of the great things about the Olympics – and there are many great things – is that while so many of us lost our minds about an Olympics without Simone Biles, others were watching Japan beat the US women in softball, a 2-0 shutout, Maude Charron pull off a brilliant victory for Canada gold over at weightlifting and downright marveling over the first Olympic medals ever given in surfing.

    There will be, as announcers often tell us, “more to come,” including, perhaps, more from Simone Biles. The women’s individual all-around final, which she and teammate Lee qualified for, is scheduled for Thursday. She has said that she is not certain if she will be there. The event finals begin Sunday with vault and uneven bars, followed by floor on Monday and beam on Tuesday. Biles qualified for everything.

    She will let us know when she is ready.