Simone Biles won her fourth world all-around title on Thursday, but not in the way that she or her coaches or her fans had hoped she would. Biles fell on her vault in the first rotation and then fell off the beam in the third. She still managed to pull out the all-around win—her fourth, a new record—due to excellent performances on bars and floor, and thanks to a degree of difficulty that far surpasses those of even her nearest competitors.
Still, it was a less-than-ideal outcome and Biles was frank about that. “I feel like the girls worked so hard and I feel like they deserved it a little more than me,” she said in her post-meet interview. “Because it depends on how good you do that day and today that wasn’t me.”
I get why Biles was disappointed in her performance, despite the outcome and also why she might feel that other gymnasts who performed more cleanly than she did—notice I didn’t say “better”—might have “deserved it a little more.” Those are her feelings and she’s entitled to them. By a certain way of thinking, they are justified. Biles was disappointed.
And so were some folks online, not in Biles herself but in the rules that allowed her to take the win with two major errors.
While Biles is not the first gymnast to have won the world or Olympic all-around title with a fall, it’s hardly what you’d call a frequent occurrence. It happened in 2006, the first world championships held under the new open-ended scoring system, when Vanessa Ferrari won the world all-around title with a fall from balance beam. Ferrari’s victory despite the fall was seen as proof of how bad an idea it was to eliminate the old perfect 10 system. Under the 10, victory with a fall was much harder to pull off; with all athletes capped at a maximum of 10 points, regardless of how difficult their routines were, no one could get so out so far ahead that they could absorb a half a point deduction for a fall. (Under the current rules, gymnasts lose a full point for falling.)
Gymnastics is is an aesthetic, performance-based sport. As such, its ideas of winning and perfection are deeply intertwined. The history of the sport suggest that victory and perfection often go hand in hand, and that you can’t have the former without the latter.
Ideas about “perfection” exist in other sports too. There is such a thing as a perfect game in baseball, and they are always the same—a pitcher faces 27 batters and gets them all out in order. Football’s quarterback ratings are notably, ridiculous obscure, but an upper boundary exists and a few dozen quarterbacks have hit it over the years. Perfection is as rare in those disciplines as it is anywhere else. It’s special, but by no means a guarantee of victory. A pitcher can be perfect through nine and watch his bullpen blow it in the tenth; a quarterback putting up a perfect 158.3 has given his team a chance to win, but only a chance.
Of course, no one was actually perfect or even close to perfect in yesterday’s competition. Many of the top gymnasts had mistakes in their routines—bent legs here, a stumble out of a turn there—but those kinds of errors are easy to ignore. They don’t disrupt a performance in the way that a fall does. Falling is clearly a bigger mistake, which is why a large deduction is applied, much larger than the ones applied for other kinds of mistakes.
Does that mean that falling should automatically send you tumbling down the rankings?
In most cases, whether it should mean that or not, it does. Most gymnasts don’t have the kind of cushion that Biles has. If they fall, it will usually keep them from winning any kind of medal. Sometimes they do end up on the podium, as Aliya Mustafina did in the 2012 all-around where she won the bronze despite a fall. But they will not normally be on the top step, and certainly not with two falls.
Biles, however, is unusual. She’s capable of doing incredibly hard skills with mastery. That doesn’t mean she can’t and won’t make mistakes. She is human, after all.
But you certainly can’t accuse Biles of “chucking” her skills and merely hoping to land on her feet in the way that some gymnasts do when they push their own personal envelope on difficulty. Biles is truly capable of the difficult skills she includes in her routines and the scoring advantage she holds over the other gymnasts truly is earned. The reason Biles has dominated the last half-decade of women’s gymnastics is not because she found loopholes in the Code of Points and exploited them. It’s because she has consistently performed the most difficult gymnastics the women’s sport has ever seen and consistently been brilliant in doing it.
In order to make this a real contest, either everyone else would need to level up or you’d need different rules just for Biles.