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Friday, September 17, 2021

Tokyo 2020: Russia win Gold War

With or without Simone Biles, America second-best in women's team gymnastics

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: July 28, 2021 2:09:27 pm
Simone Biles, US Gymnastics, Tokyo Olympics Gymnastics gold, russia gymnastics tokyo olympics, simone biles mental health, Viktoriia Listunova, Angelina Melnikova, Vladislava UrazovaGold medallists Viktoriia Listunova, Angelina Melnikova, Vladislava Urazova of the Russian Olympic Committee pose with medals. (Reuters Photo)

It seemed like the return of the Cold War era.

An American reporter asked the gold medal-winning Russian gymnastics team if they would have won had Simone Biles not pulled out.

The Russians let their youngest member, 16-year-old Viktoria Listunova, take the question. She rolled her eyes and smirked. “That is not a very good question, I would say,” she began. “Simone Biles is human.”

Almost on cue, the Russians in the press room gave a loud applause. The Americans, as one would expect, weren’t too amused. That one had a landing better than Listunova’s rotation routine during the gymnastics team final. The two-time champions USA, led by Biles, were widely tipped to defend their title. But in a stunning upset, it was Russia who went home with the gold medal.

Russia’s margin of win, 3.432 points, was a clear enough indication that it was their rock-solid performance in the vault, uneven bars and floor exercise that led to the win, not an American mistake – which were many – or the absence of Biles. And it was no fluke either, given that Russians were supreme even in the qualifying rounds, where Biles competed.

However, the American showstopper’s exit did seem to have an impact.

Star eclipsed

This was supposed to be the night when the Olympics’ brightest star would shine. Biles, ever since she has vaulted into the collective consciousness of the sporting world, has dared to do rotations considered so difficult that no other gymnast even attempts them in training.

So, it came as a shock to those inside the Ariake Gymnastics Arena to see the American great fluff a relatively easy routine. She planned to do the Yurchenko with two-and-a-half twists. But when the moment came, she watered it down to one-and-a-half twist and then stumbled on her landing, almost sitting. She was awarded a score of 13.766 points, very low for the best vaulter in the world.

That resulted in the USA finishing the first of the four events more than a point behind Russia and were always playing catch-up from there.

Almost immediately, Biles was surrounded by her coaches and left the stage with a trainer. When she returned, she was wearing a warm-up jacket and pants over her red-and-blue leotard, signalling her exit from the final, as her teammates began their warm-up for the uneven bars.

For the rest of the evening, Biles played the role of a cheerleader but even then, the entire focus was just on her. After the final, Biles said she did not continue competing because she wasn’t in the right space mentally.

“In the back gym, coming in today, it was like fighting all those demons, ‘I have to put my pride aside, I have to do it for the team’. At the end of the day, I have to do what’s right for me and focus on my mental health, and not jeopardise my health and well-being,” she said.

For Biles, with the kind of routines she performs, confidence is the key factor. The slightest doubt can have disastrous outcomes, so she chose not to take a chance. “I just don’t trust myself as much as I used to. I don’t know if it’s age. I’m a little bit more nervous when I do gymnastics. I feel like I’m also not having as much fun, and I know that this Olympic Games, I wanted it to be for myself (crying). I was still doing it for other people, so it hurts my heart that doing what I love has been kind of taken away from me to please other people.”

Without their biggest star, the Americans tried to stage a comeback, with Sunisa Lee leading the charge on uneven bars. But they were unable to surge past the impressive Russians, with Listunova leading their march.

Russians make a point

Listunova wouldn’t even have been in Tokyo. The 16-year-old would have been too young to compete had the Games taken place as scheduled last year.

Her teammate Vladislava Urazova, also 16, too was able to compete in major international events only last year. For both, the Olympics are the first big test. And although Urazova – and teammate Angelina Melnikova – suffered two falls in the balance beam, they’d done enough to secure a surprise gold.

For Russia, the top podium finish assumes a lot more significance. They are competing at these Games as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) because of the doping ban imposed on the country.

This meant that the gymnasts, like other Russian athletes, can’t see their flag go up or listen to their national anthem on the podium. And although they are wearing red, white and blue colours, their flag cannot appear on the t-shirts.

But as much as it was about them winning the gold, Tuesday’s final was also, perhaps more, about Biles, her mental health and her future at these Games.

Biles proved she is just a human. The 16-year-old Russian prodigy said it.

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