Having learned nothing from the mocking it got two years ago, when it unfairly punished the world’s greatest gymnast for its own bad choices, the International Gymnastics Federation is poised to do it all over again. Only this time, it will be the entire world asking just what the FIG is thinking.
On Saturday night, Biles became the first woman to compete a Yurchenko double pike, a vault so difficult few men even attempt it. She is pushing the boundaries of her sport and, much like Michael Phelps’ quest for eight swimming gold medals in Beijing, Biles’ efforts to challenge the notion of what’s possible will be all the talk of the Tokyo Olympics.
Yet, based on guidance from the FIG, judges at the U.S. Classic gave her new vault a start value – the measure of its difficulty – of just 6.6 points.
Pretty much everyone agrees that woefully undervalues the skill. By at least 0.2 points if you’re going by precedent, as much as 0.4 if you use the eye test.
“I feel like now we just have to get what we get,” Biles said afterward. “There’s no point in putting up a fight, because they’re not going to reward the correct value. But that’s OK. We’re just going to take it and just be quiet.”
The FIG should be celebrating the unique combination of natural talent, hard work and smart training that makes Biles a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, and commending her for challenging herself and her sport. Instead, gymnastics officials are embarrassed by the massive gap Biles has opened on the rest of the field, and are throwing up artificial barriers to try and narrow it.
Simone Biles celebrates on the podium after winning the U.S. Classic all-around competition.
But this is elite gymnastics, not a parks and recreation department program where everyone is given a trophy just for showing up. If Biles can do tricks that defy physics and explanation – and, with four Olympic gold medals and more medals at the world championships than any other gymnast, there is no question she can – she should be appropriately rewarded for them.
“I definitely think (the vault) is undervalued,” said Tom Forster, national team coordinator. “It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what they’ve done with (the progression of) other vault values, and I don’t know why they do that.”
Because Biles has exposed the inherent flaw in a scoring system that gymnastics officials created.
When the FIG ditched the 10.0 for an open-ended scoring system following the 2004 Olympics, part of its reasoning was to encourage athletes to push the physical bounds of the sport. For every progression in a skill, there would be a comparable reward in value.
Biles has been willing to play the FIG’s numbers game while others have not – or cannot. As a result, she has a mathematical advantage no other gymnast can realistically match.
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But Biles’ dominance – other gymnasts joke about being in the “non-Simone division,” recognizing they’re competing for second – irritates the FIG. The athletes-turned-suits who run the sport have now decided they’d rather have parity, even if it means contorting themselves to get it.
“That’s on them. That’s not on me,” Biles said. “They had an open-ended Code of Points, and now they’re mad people are too far ahead and excelling.”
The FIG will claim that it’s concerned about athlete safety, that it doesn’t want to give other athletes incentive to try skills they can’t do. (And, let’s be honest. There are some gymnasts who are inviting serious injury by chucking skills they have no business doing. Some of you vault specialists, you know who you are.)
But you can’t encourage innovation one minute, only to try to smother that ambition the next.