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Unbeatable Simone Biles’s only competition at Olympics is herself

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Simone Biles was widely hailed as the best gymnast in history before she had even competed on the sport’s biggest stage. Born three months short of the age cut-off for the London Games, she had already piled up three straight all-around titles and 14 overall medals at world championships, including 10 golds, when she touched down in Brazil five years ago for her Olympic debut.

Somehow, the 4ft 8in, 105lb sprite from suburban Houston managed to realise the impossible expectations that preceded her, fulfilling her long-held promise with four gold medals in seven unforgettable days at the Arena Olímpica do Rio. Already a superstar in the parochial world of gymnastics, Biles became a household name overnight.

Related: ‘The cat got fed instead of us’: Simone Biles discusses her childhood hunger

Now? America’s greatest athlete is the runaway favourite to become the oldest woman in more than five decades to win the Olympic all-around title, the sport’s most coveted prize, and the first repeat champion since Vera Caslavska did it for Czechoslovakia in 1968. It has been more than eight years since Biles entered an all-around competition and did not walk away the winner. Her only competition is herself.

It seemed there was no way to go but down after Biles’s coronation in Rio. But when she returned to competition after a year-and-a-half hiatus, she continued to rewrite the record books while raising her level under the brightest lights, surpassing Vitaly Scherbo’s record as the most decorated gymnast in world championship history with 25 career medals. To the resignation of her rivals, she’s proven untouchable even when below her best: her margin of victory at the 2018 worlds was the largest ever despite two falls and a kidney stone that sent her to a Doha emergency room less than 24 hours before she was scheduled to compete.

Despite winning by margins that are unusually large for gymnastics, Biles has kept adding new and more difficult skills to her floor exercise, beam and vault routines and pushing the technical limits of the sport. Lately, she’s been drilling a Yurchenko double pike vault, becoming the first woman to throw down the high-difficulty skill in competition. Should she land it in Tokyo as planned, it will become the fifth element named for Biles in the women’s artistic gymnastics code of points.

She has also managed to extend her impact far beyond the competition floor. Once loth to speak out on thorny issues, Biles has become a voice for change within USA Gymnastics. Since coming forward in 2018 as a survivor of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, she has openly criticised the national governing body for its failures in protecting and caring for its athletes. Her headline-grabbing tweets led to the closing of the Karolyi Ranch, the training centre where many of the gymnasts were abused, and played a role in the resignation of the USA Gymnastics president Mary Bono.

For Biles, who remains so far ahead of everyone it will take the sport years to catch up, Tokyo was long expected to be the crowning achievement of an extraordinary career. But she has recently left the door open for a third Olympic appearance as an event specialist in 2024, when she would be 27.

After nearly a decade of watching America’s cosmic kite toy with the outer limits of human potential, who in their right mind would doubt her?

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