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We've Hardly Discussed One Of The Greatest Olympians Of All Time

We've Hardly Discussed One Of The Greatest Olympians Of All Time
By Conall Cahill
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And so for a week in August 2016 Simone Biles came into our consciousness and that of the world; vaulting, flipping, twisting and jumping into our awareness of greatness in a sporting context. Or did she?

Biles' incredible performances in Rio in claiming four gold medals and a bronze have enraptured her home country of the USA and the Sports Illustrated cover featuring herself alongside Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky elucidated just where she stands in the pantheon of Olympic achievement there.

And yet, her achievements, while certainly acknowledged, seem to have gone comparatively under the radar on these shores. Ireland is hardly a gymnastics stronghold and yet Biles' achievement in these Olympics is nearly on par with that of the legendary Phelps; her accomplishment amounts to nothing less than complete domination of her sport, such that her team-mate and rival Aly Raisman admitted, "No one goes into this thinking they can beat Simone", comparing Biles to Usain Bolt in terms of being so superior in a chosen sport.

And yet, much like boxers and athletes in Ireland, it has really taken the Olympics to launch Biles in her own country. Despite 1984 Olympic gold medallist Mary Lou Retton declaring two years ago that Biles was perhaps the most talented gymnast she had ever seen, the radar of the average American didn't really pick up on Biles until the Games rolled around-that is according to David Epstein, author of the bestselling 'The Sports Gene', when he spoke to the 'Second Captains' podcast last week.

If you were an Olympic enthusiast, you heard her name, you were aware she was a favourite, things like that. I would say that the average Olympic viewer (in the USA) maybe heard her name in the week leading up to the Olympics, but nothing like we were hearing the names of Phelps, Ledecky. Even for most people here, this is a breakout performance.

Biles came into the Rio Olympics with a record ten World Championship gold medals and four consecutive all-around national titles in her sport, so this seems staggering. But Biles serves as the perfect example of the fact that no matter what you achieve outside of the Olympics, the question the local butcher will ask you (as Irish Olympian Gary O'Toole put it) is, 'Did you ever go to an Olympics?'



Biles, with her smiling, jovial appearance during performances-even being known to wink in the middle of a routine-stands in stark contrast to the serious disposition we have come to expect from sportspeople when in competition. This is, of course, partly because, as Epstein said, the presentation is "part of the culture" of gymnastics-including the flamboyant uniforms-but, like so many top sportspeople, there is a slightly darker side to Biles' formation as a person and as an athlete.

She enjoys sharing photos of her family-her parents, two brothers, younger sister and German shepherd dogs-but Biles spent the early years of her life living in a destructive household with Adria, her sister, and a mother struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, and being sent in and out of foster homes in Ohio before moving in with her maternal grandfather and his second wife. She refers to them as 'Mom' and 'Dad', though herself and her natural mother sporadically communicate.


Inevitably when a young star gets thrown into a nation's spotlight certain things get highlighted-one of which is, inevitably, family life and upbringing. So predictably her relationship with her maternal mother was something the 19-year-old was asked about in an interview with 'Time' magazine before the Olympics.


I want to know why my mother did what she did. But those aren’t questions for me because that was her lifestyle when I wasn’t even born. I have everything I need so there are no blanks left unfilled. I never felt I had questions or needed answers or had a part of me that was missing.

We may never know just how much Biles' troubled start in life affected her, if at all-as much as we who follow sport love a troubled soul, perhaps Biles really is the happy-go-lucky, bubbly sort whose exuberance once led the retiring US gymnastics national team coordinator to tell her to "tone it down" at a meet.

But, then again, we may not see a gymnast like Biles again in our lifetime. Biles has answered, "I don't know", when asked if she will compete in Tokyo at the 2020 Olympic Games.


Nevertheless, she has revolutionised gymnastics, and her physique is emblematic of the way in which gymnasts have evolved over the generations. Her height, four feet and eight inches, is an inch below the average for a gymnast according to Epstein, who explained how her small, stocky frame is perfect for practising her chosen craft.

The reason it’s an advantage to be both small and short-limbed is twofold. Small objects have what’s called a lower 'moment of inertia'-so that’s just a measure of how resistant the object is to rotating. So you want less weight further away from the axis of rotation to make something easy to spin. With the gymnasts, when they do twists in the air, they’ll tuck their legs in to pull even more weight closer to their centre of mass. The smaller you are, and the shorter your limbs are, the easier you rotate in the air.

Indeed, Epstein "wouldn’t be surprised if gymnasts could even get smaller".


It is rare that a sportsperson will be so dominant, so incredibly in control of their sport, that they revolutionise the very way in which it is practised or perceived. Usain Bolt changed our perception of tall sprinters. At this Olympic Games, Adam Peaty demonstrated a revolution in how the breast-stroke is swum; Michael Phelps revolutionised what we ever considered possible in a human being. Simone Biles has left her distinct imprint on gymnastics as a competitor. She has spoken of her desire to become a nurse-like her 'Mom'-and has said in the past that she doesn't wish to move into coaching when she is finished competing.

And so, as quickly as she came into our lives in this past week or so, Simone Biles departs, having given us a week of near perfection in sporting terms and captured the imaginations of all of us who were lucky enough to flick on our televisions and watch the gymnastics at one stage or another.

And after these Games, when we gather round and try to process the tumultuous events of Rio, when the dust has settled and the stadiums lie hush and empty, let's hope we can remember-as well as the injustices, the cheating, the controversy-the majesty of Simone Biles.



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