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Opinion: The hypocrisy of trying to put limits on Simone Biles

Opinion by Amy Bass

(CNN) — On the one hand, Simone Biles is the greatest athlete of all time. On the other hand, well — there is no other hand.

Not more than five months ago, as a fan pointed out on X (formerly Twitter), speculation continued among many that Biles might never compete again. “Real talk,” Simone Biles reposted alongside four face-holding-back-tears emojis after nabbing gold in the floor exercise at the 2023 world championships in Antwerp, Belgium. “I didn’t think so either.”

The numbers tallied about the most decorated gymnast (and because someone, somewhere, will ask, yes, male or female) in history defy common sense: 37 total world and Olympic medals, including five in Antwerp, where she clinched her sixth all-around title 10 years after she won her first. Her road back to the sport she not only dominates, but defines, challenges anyone who fails to understand that athletes must care for their mental, not just physical, health.

In Tokyo, just over two years ago, Biles shocked the sports world when she announced that she was sitting down, letting her teammates continue the Olympic quest without her because she had the “twisties,” a word used to describe what happens when a gymnasts’ mind and body are out of sync. Biles left no room for the kind of typical sports talk that urges athletes to soldier on, to work or play through the pain. She was not OK, and she was brave enough to say it out loud. She remained on the sidelines, withdrawing from five events total, until entering back into the fray to pull off a gutsy bronze medal in the balance beam final.

Flash forward to Antwerp, where like in San Jose in August, when she won a record-setting eighth national crown, Biles looked lighter and happier than ever, demonstrably enjoying the performances of teammates and competitors, glowing in the thunderous endorsement from the crowd. Her floor routine during the team competition — perhaps the best anyone has ever done — can’t completely erase the clouds that hung over her in Tokyo (the violent legacy of Larry Nassar, the isolation of Covid-19, the intense pressures put upon her to stun observers at every turn). But at these world championships, it was clear she was in a better place, one that focused on pushing boundaries that she set for herself. Her triumphs came with acknowledgments of the work that it took, including therapy, to overcome the obstacles that benched her in Tokyo — and the many life changes she has made since Tokyo, perhaps especially her marriage to Jonathan Owens, emphasizing that gymnastics is now something she does, not who she is.

“I think what success means to me is a little bit different than before because before everyone defined success for me, even if I had my own narrative that I wanted,” said Biles in an exclusive interview with Scott Bregman at “So, now, it’s just showing up, being in a good head place, having fun out there. …” As she put it, “I have expectations, but I won’t be let down if I don’t achieve something.”

What hasn’t changed are her bold and audacious acrobatics, with degrees of difficulty that make possible scores almost no one else can achieve. In Antwerp, as is often the case when Biles is in motion, her execution, too, was a rare combination of ferociousness and grace. She is an athlete so artful while exhibiting so much strength; that combination helped establish those vast margins that few could chase.

In addition to her medal haul, these world championships also marked a fifth element named for her — the Yurchenko double pike on vault, now called the Biles II. Yet it, too, represented some of the changes she has made to ensure that her mind and body are working in concert when she steps onto the platform, with coach Laurent Landi spotting her for the dangerous YDP, a request that brings a half-point neutral deduction with it.

That deduction is no small thing to consider. Biles is obviously willing to accept it, as her coach’s presence gives her yet another layer of peace and security while she throws the most difficult vault ever performed by a female gymnast, and she generally has enough of a lead to take the hit. But in the vault final, even though she failed to stick a landing (falling onto her back), that deduction for her coach’s presence marked the difference between gold and silver, something the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique, or FIG, the international governing body of gymnastics, should take another look at. The hypocrisy might be subtle, but it is there.

In the past, her work has been underrated, underrecognized and undervalued by FIG — classifying her double somersault with two twists dismount from the beam as an H skill instead of an I or J, as example. Maybe it is because she makes such things look easy, effortless. Or maybe it is because FIG doesn’t want others even to attempt what Biles routinely does to grab the points that come with higher degrees of difficulty, and land in traction for their efforts.

After Olga Korbut performed the dead loop on the uneven bars in Munich in 1972, in which she stood on the high bar and did a backflip before again grabbing the bar, the move was banned as too dangerous, making it the first and last time it was ever seen in elite competition. But if FIG does such things in the name of health and safety, perhaps punishing Biles for prioritizing her own safety by having her coach nearby rings hollow, especially now.

At the end of the day, though, Biles can stumble on her historic vault and still win silver. She can step out of bounds on the floor final and still win her sixth gold medal in the event. Her glorious return to the world stage, and the records she owns because of it, demonstrate the beauty of sport when it is not a zero-sum game based solely on winning.

If it was only about the golds, Biles, 26 years old and having already won everything, could have called it quits out of sheer boredom a long time ago. Instead, she stands yet again as a champion, crowing about the “Black Girl Magic” on the all-around victory dais with Brazil’s Rebeca Andrade and US teammate Shilese Jones, and symbolizing a quest for excellence that goes beyond her record-breaking stash of medals. Rather, the span of her career, the five elements named for her, enable us to see what human beings can be capable of when they do things on their own terms — half-point deductions be damned.

So, for now, with Biles back in the air, twisting better than anyone else, it is more than enough. Dreams of Paris, of another Olympics, of more medals, more records — let’s save those for another day.

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