Simone Biles Can Pull Off a Move That No Other Gymnast Can. So Why Is She Penalized For It?

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·4 min read
Simone Biles Can Pull Off a Move That No Other Gymnast Can. So Why Is She Penalized For It?
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Once, there was a basketball player named Lew Alcindor. You might've heard of the guy: a literal head (sometimes two) above everyone else at seven feet tall. He played for UCLA in the '60s, and led his team to three national championships. Being that tall, and that damn good, he could take the ball and jam it directly into the hoop. Often. So often that the NCAA, essentially, banned dunking. The man who became the legendary Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was penalized for simply being better than all the small dudes who couldn't ram the ball through the net.

Well over 50 years since we saw what was unofficially dubbed the Lew Alcindor Rule, it looks like we've just seen another handicapping of an all-timer, this time in women's gymnastics. We might just be able to call it the Simone Biles Rule. This past Saturday at the U.S. Classic, Biles—the most decorated gymnast in history—became the first woman to perform the ultra-dangerous Yurchenko double pike in competition. With Biles having to launch off the vaulting table with a roundoff back handspring, into two flips in a pike position, it's a marvel of a move so treacherous that most gymnasts won't even dare to practice it. You'd think that Biles pulling off the move would be cause for celebration. Nope. The judges gave her a 6.6., which, by any measure of everyone watching who wasn't a judge that night, was far too low, considering the difficulty of the move.

“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,” Biles told The New York Times. “So we just have to take it and be quiet.”

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In the sport, judges rate gymnasts on a scoring system that takes into account the difficulty of the moves they perform. The Yurchenko double pike has a low starting score, which people think intends to either discourage gymnasts from attempting the dangerous move, or to keep a GOAT like Biles from running away with the gold. Or both. It's not only a tragedy that we may never see an all-timer of an athlete rewarded for doing something that might not be done in competition again—but the latest sign that the Tokyo Summer Olympics won't do right by its athletes.

Unless, you know, the sport of gymnastics undergoes a massive overhaul between now and the time the torch lights up on July 23, we could see the same Alcindoring of Biles in competition—should she dare to attempt it again. Which she absolutely should. It's just a shame to think that in two months, we could see Biles give the world one of its greatest Olympics moments, and walk away with a score that doesn't reflect how far and away better she is than any of her competition. For the record, Saturday's judges have not responded to Biles's quotes in the Times, where she added that she expects the gymnastics federation to undervalue the move when it's reviewed. It's almost like if the International Olympics Committee (IOC) made Katie Ledecky compete in a separate, longer pool. But that's not even right. There's not even anything close to a direct comparison to make here. Biles knows full well how ridiculous the scoring is, too.

“They’re both too low and they even know it,” Biles added of her scores in the Times interview. "But they don’t want the field to be too far apart. And that’s just something that’s on them. That’s not on me."

Looking ahead to July, the threat of Olympics judges making the gymnastics events a game of Whose Line is it Anyway? (where the points don't matter!) feels like smoke for a much bigger fire. In what will surely become a much bigger story come this summer, the IOC decided to uphold Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which bans "demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda" at the Games—at risk of punishment. Just as we seemed to learn nothing 50 years after diminishing Alcindor's skills, it looks like the IOC hasn't moved an inch since Tommie Smith peacefully raised his fist and was rewarded with a lifetime of suffering for it.

Thankfully, whether or not the IOC deserves it, there are Olympians like Biles who will continue to be great—simply because they're great. Just look at what Biles told the Times when asked why she'll continue to perform the Yurchenko double pike in competition, again, and again and again.

“Because I can.”

Photo credit: Mike Kim
Photo credit: Mike Kim

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