Vahe Gregorian

Simone Biles’ lopsided victory gives her a claim to being best Olympic gymnast in history

The United States’ Simone Biles waved from the podium after receiving her gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around final Thursday.
The United States’ Simone Biles waved from the podium after receiving her gold medal in the women’s gymnastics all-around final Thursday. The Associated Press

The coronation of U.S. gymnastics phenom Simone Biles as the Rio Olympics’ all-around gold medalist was about as inevitable as anything can be in sports.

So much so that teammate Aly Raisman began the day knowing her own medal ceiling was the silver.

She gleefully embraced it after Biles’ final exclamation point of the night — her floor exercise — sprung her to a margin of victory (2.1 points) considered jaw-dropping in the sport.

But even if this went precisely as anticipated, it wasn’t anticlimactic.

Yes, it was understood in the gymnastics world that Biles, 19, had seized the sport in the aftermath of the 2012 London Olympics by winning the last three world championships.

Unfair as it might be, though, to the general audience at home that confers little of the luster of the Olympic gold that now has been won by four different American gymnasts in the last four Games.

“I think in a lot of people’s minds, it cements” her status, said Aimee Boorman, Biles’ coach of the last 11 years, chuckling at such silliness: “ ‘She can’t be called the greatest because she hasn’t won an Olympic gold.’ ”

“Well,” Boorman added with a smile, “Done. Check.”

So with Biles’ nomination made official, let the debates begin:

Is she the greatest ever now, people want to know.

And not just in the way that people always want to believe the latest is the greatest, though that’s surely true, too.

It’s because her fusion of power and precision and elegance and daring is such that it transcends any translation issues between, say, changes in scoring systems or the sheer guesswork in how one generation might stack up with another.

At least sticking with just modern history, take it from one who has a basis in comparison.

USA Gymnastics women’s team coordinator Martha Karolyi, who after the victory called Biles a “force of nature,” along with her husband, Bela, coached Nadia Comaneci.

The Romanian gymnast revolutionized, or at least jumpstarted, the sport at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

That’s when she recorded the first perfect 10s in the history of the Games — a feat then considered so impossible that it was reflected as a 1.00 on a scoreboard that only had three digits.

The other day, Karolyi said she considered Comaneci and Biles equals among those she’s worked with. She probably also meant in the annals of the sport.

On Thursday she was asked if Biles now was her No. 1.

“I would have to say ‘yes,’ ” Karolyi said, smiling, then offering virtually the same words when asked if she was the greatest ever. “I would say yes.”

So while we’re on discussions that may or may not have any real answer …

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on Earth, and Michael Phelps is the most-decorated Olympian ever and Katie Ledecky is rewriting swimming records every few minutes.

Olympic decathlon and heptathlon champions become widely known as the greatest athletes on the planet, and you can probably think of any number of other athletes you’d make a case for as such.

But shouldn’t Biles, all dynamic 4-foot-9 of her, belong in the discussion?

“It’s not just that you have to be fast or strong or flexible. It brings everything together. And you have to be fearless,” Boorman said as she matter-of-factly made the case. “So I would think that gymnasts are the greatest athletes.”

Apples and oranges and all, it’s intriguing food for thought.

Then again, maybe it’s best to just appreciate Biles’ uniqueness.

“I’m not the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” she said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.”

A story in itself beyond the well-chronicled saga of her troubled mother leaving her and two siblings to be raised by their grandfather Ronald and his wife, Nellie — better known now simply as her parents.

Boorman ultimately began coaching her as an 8-year-old because Biles had become enticed by the sport by what either was a fluke or fate.

The fascination started two years earlier when rain forced Biles’ day-care to cancel a trip to a farm, according to SIKids.com.

So they went to a local gym instead, and she soon was hooked.

Back then, though, her ascent was anything but inevitable even if she was unusually energetic and athletic.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, that kid’s got something,’ ” Boorman recalled. “What it was and how far it would go, I had no idea.”

That was in part because Boorman, a coach known for moderation uncharacteristic in the sport, said she believes not in projecting but nurturing and seeing how things play out.

Maybe it also was because “everything (Biles) did was ugly,” she said, laughing. “She couldn’t control any landing. She could do big skills (in the air) and then would land and bounce 15 feet backward. …

“She couldn’t stay on the beam to save her life. No bar, because her hands were so small.”

At least she was always a good vaulter … though Boorman suddenly recalled some early chaos in that, too.

But Biles would come to develop “springs in her calves,” became what Boorman calls “pure muscle” and was infused with a certain sense of daring.

She could be stubborn, but that was closely entwined with just being determined. Karolyi would come to see her as someone who appreciated that “talent by itself doesn’t give you anything.”

On Thursday, that all coalesced in a performance that left Biles with an overall score of 62.198 in her four events, punctuated by the highest score of the competition (15.933) in the floor exercise that ended it.

By any measure, past or present (the scoring system was changed in 2006), it was a lopsided victory.

In fact, the 2.1 margin was bigger than that of every individual all-around from 1980 to 2012 combined.

“I think everyone knew she was going to win, like, a couple years ago,” Raisman said.

Yes. But now Biles has been anointed in a new way — and stands on a more visible and elite tier fit for any debate about gymnastics and Olympics greats.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

  Comments