It’s a strange moment for Biles, 24, a dynamo of an athlete who has won every type of medal there is in her sport who is often referred to as “the world’s best gymnast” without a hint of irony. Competing is what she has been raised to do and everyone expected that her athletic feats would secure her the two medals needed to make her the most decorated Olympian in U.S. history, a surefire victory even in these uncertain times. (If Bela and Marta Karolyi were still running the team she almost certainly would have.) Instead, she decided not to compete in the team finals and individual all-around, a sharp departure for her and a stark change in the direction of the U.S. women’s team itself.
The Tokyo Games marks the first time in decades that the team has gone to the Olympics without either Bela or Marta Karolyi coaching the team, since Marta retired shortly after her “Final Five” took gold in Rio in 2016. It also marks the first time the team has competed since the 2016 revelation that former team doctor Larry Nassar had been using his access to the gymnasts to sexually abuse them.
Under the Karolyi system, Biles would never have been allowed to withdraw due to “mental health reasons.” The coaches who had transformed the American team into a gold medal-winning powerhouse shortly after defecting from Communist Romania were known for their demanding regimen.
Their approach allowed the coaches to scrutinize and criticize their athletes on everything from weight to looks to, of course, performance, and it was a given that the gymnasts continued to train and perform, according to reports that came out following the Nassar scandal, no matter the circumstance. But that was how you got Kerri Strug in the 1996 Atlanta Games powering through her second vault on an injured ankle, sticking the landing even as her face contorted in pain.
However, the strict, circa-1960s Eastern Block Communist-style training program created by the Karolyis was the perfect situation for a predator like Nassar. He would offer candy, sodas, and sympathy—a particularly powerful method of grooming young gymnasts who weren’t receiving much of that from the Karolyis. Over more than 20 years serving as team doctor, he reportedly abused countless young gymnasts entrusted to his care—including Biles herself, as she revealed in 2018. During Nassar’s subsequent federal trial and conviction for child pornography, the Karolyi approach itself has come under scrutiny, as it has become increasingly clear how years of American gymnastics dominance had come at a cost.
If this system had not yielded winning teams and gymnastics stars emerging from the training facility eventually established up the road in Huntsville every four years it might not have been allowed—there are reports of criticizing the gymnasts weight, looks, and performance in terms that would be difficult for most adults to swallow let alone gravity-defying women in their teens and 20s—but the Karolyi way got results.
All of that was upended however when the Nassar scandal broke. The years since have left the Karolyis in disrepute, their famed Huntsville training center empty, and the tough program that produced tough tiny champions abandoned. Instead, we now have the Biles approach.
So what does this mean? Well, Biles’ current coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi have taken the polar-opposite approach to nurturing her phenomenal talent. The coaches have noted in interviews that the goal is to make Biles feel secure in her sport, not anxious. In fact, Cecile Landi had told ESPN last week that the famed vault move Biles was set to perform on Tuesday, the Yurychenko double pike, might not happen if Biles wasn’t physically or mentally up to it. "It took a long time for Simone to become comfortable doing it and it is still a vault that is very dangerous,” she observed. “A coach will have to find an athlete that is physically and mentally extremely strong, and once you have that combination, it's doable.”
And in the end, Biles, who had already been making uncharacteristic mistakes during the preliminary team competition, wasn’t in the right place to pull it off, and said so, which would never have been allowed under the Karolyis. Although her decision not to continue rocked her team they fought hard and managed to secure silver while the Russians took the gold.
It’s hard to tell what this bodes for the future of the U.S. women’s team as far as medals and star performers are concerned, but one thing is clear: The Karolyi way is over.