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The Return of Simone Biles and the Costs of Gymnastics

It can be difficult to describe the experience of watching women’s gymnastics, because it is not like any other sport. Most élite athletes challenge bodily limits, but gymnasts seem to exist in a realm beyond the human body’s horizon. Some have the brawny necks of linebackers, others the knobby knees of foals. They have the air sense of birds and the balance of cats; they have preternatural strength and flexibility. Their crystal-encrusted leotards glitter like futuristic armor, and their buns are often adorned with absurd little bows. They are fearless, and they wear fixed smiles. At the same time, it has always been hard to escape the sense that what we see—the sparkles, the flips, the fierce toe points—is only a partial view: that they only seem invulnerable, that there are hidden costs.

It is now impossible to watch women’s gymnastics without an awareness of some of those costs. The U.S. national championships over the weekend were shadowed by an almost unimaginably horrific scandal: the sexual abuse of athletes by the former team doctor Larry Nassar. Hundreds of athletes, many of them gymnasts—including all five members of the 2012 Olympic team and four of the five members of the 2016 team—have come forward as victims.

One of the women who has come forward is Simone Biles. Biles stepped away from the sport after the 2016 Olympics, in Rio de Janeiro, as the best gymnast in the world and arguably the greatest the world had ever seen. Last month, she returned somehow even better—and at nationals she showed that she still has room to grow. This weekend, she swept all four individual event titles and won the women’s all-around by 6.55 points. To put that in context: she could have fallen multiple times during the all-around and still won. The gap between first and second place was larger than the gap between second and eleventh. After the meet, she graded herself a B-plus. As hard as it can be to describe women’s gymnastics, it is even harder to describe Biles. At nationals, she did more difficult skills than anyone else, and seemed to do them easily. Very quickly, she exhausted all superlatives.

Biles’s return was greeted with a mixture of ecstasy and relief. Finally, the collective response went. Something to cheer about. “Is Simone Biles’ comeback saving gymnastics?” an article on the Web site for NBC Sports, which broadcast the event, began. When asked about the narrative that she has become gymnastics’ savior, Biles acknowledged, “A lot of the time, that’s the feedback that I get.” Then she pushed back against it: “It’s not fair to me, because I can’t carry the whole gymnastics world.”

The problem isn’t that she can’t, though—it’s that she might. And that won’t change the sport’s real underlying problem: the system that enabled Nassar’s abuse is a system that put medals first, above all.

In the past year and a half, since Nassar’s abuse came to light, U.S.A. Gymnastics has made several reforms. The organization’s longtime president, Steve Penny, resigned, as did the entire board, nine months later. The ranch owned by Martha and Bela Karolyi, the legendary coaches, is no longer the team’s training site—a decision made only after Biles publicly opposed returning to the place where she, along with many others, had been abused. All of the changes seem to have come only after considerable outside pressure. On Sunday, the new president of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Kerry Perry, addressed the media at length for the first time since assuming her new role and, aside from highlighting a new athlete task force and the need for more communication, was mostly vague about what had been and would be done. During the event, there was no explicit acknowledgment of the survivors. (That, it seems, was also left to Biles, who wore a teal leotard in solidarity with survivors, she said after her victory; a teal ribbon is the symbol of sexual-assault awareness.) Aly Raisman, a member of the 2012 and 2016 Olympic teams and the most outspoken advocate for Nassar’s victims, was not invited to nationals by U.S.A. Gymnastics, even though the event was held in Boston, just miles from where she lives. (She came at the invitation of TD Garden, the stadium hosting the event.) Some of the awkwardness likely stems from U.S.A. Gymnastics’ attempt to adopt a new focus—athlete safety and “empowerment,” whatever that means—while still being driven by the old mandate, which was to win.

For the past two decades or so, the members of the national team had been chosen based not only on their performances at major meets, such as national championships, but also on their performance at a monthly training camp, in which gymnasts were constantly put in physically and mentally challenging competitive situations. It worked, in the intended sense. After Martha Karolyi took over as the coördinator of the national team, American women dominated the Olympics and world championships.

Even before Nassar’s crimes were revealed, it was no secret that the conditions in which many élite gymnasts trained, including at the Karolyi ranch, approached, if not crossed the line into, abuse. Prominent gymnasts, including the Olympic gold medallist Dominique Moceanu, have been critical of the Karolyis’ harsh methods. Others, such as the Olympic gold medallist Shawn Johnson and the former national champion Vanessa Atler, have spoken about their eating disorders. Katelyn Ohashi, who beat Biles at the 2013 American Cup, recently posted a video on the Players Tribune titled “I Was Broken.” She meant it literally as well as figuratively: when she decided to retire from élite gymnastics, she was competing with a fractured back and two torn shoulders. “I was told that it was embarrassing, how big I’d become,” she says in the video. “I was compared to a bird that couldn’t fly. These were all things I heard before I even got injured, things that, when I was skinny, I was told. So what would they think of me when I had become big?” Madison Kocian, an Olympic silver medallist, said last week, in an interview about Nassar’s abuse, “The culture that was at the Karolyi Ranch was a culture of fear, a culture of silence.”

The system was Darwinian: it was deemed acceptable because the women—teen-agers, most of them—won. “It’s a brutal system,” Paul Ziert, the publisher of International Gymnast, told Reeves Wiedeman, who wrote a Profile of Biles for The New Yorker in 2016, before Nassar’s abuse became public. “That said, so far no one has been able to come up with a system that can produce these results and be more civil.” Now, of course, we know that the system allowed appalling criminal behavior to continue for years. The system needs to be blown up. But we didn’t need evidence of Nassar’s crimes for that to be true.

Biles won nationals with broken toes on both feet. The psychological and mental demands can be harder to see. “At a young age we’re taught to block out our feelings, because if you’re too emotional it gets into your head and you don’t perform as well, so we’re very good at compartmentalizing things,” Biles told the Daily Beast, last winter, explaining how she could compete at such a high level despite being abused. When you read, hear, or see things like this, it’s tempting to think that the sport has serious existential problems—ones that U.S.A. Gymnastics seems, at least so far, incapable of confronting.

During nationals, the race for second place was presented as a sideshow to Biles’s win, which was a foregone conclusion. That was a mistake. If U.S. gymnastics manages to thrive, it won’t be because of one gymnast who can’t lose. It will be because of the other gymnasts—like Morgan Hurd, who radiates a brave intelligence, and who finished second. It will be because people are struck by the elegance of Kara Eaker, or the charisma of Trinity Thomas, or by the other gymnasts who did extraordinary things and did not win.

“I can quit if I wanted to,” Biles told reporters. She is right. She has nothing to prove. Winning is beside the point now. She is testing herself, exploring her own limits, learning who she is and what she can do. The real test for gymnastics is whether the same can be true for others, too.

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