/Simone Biles Will Make Dramatic Return to Tokyo Olympics on Balance Beam

Simone Biles Will Make Dramatic Return to Tokyo Olympics on Balance Beam

TOKYO—Simone Biles will compete in the balance beam final on Tuesday, making a high-stakes return to competition a week after she pulled herself out of competition because she didn’t feel mentally able to compete safely.

The 24-year-old gymnast, widely regarded as the greatest of all time, has not competed since she withdrew from the team final after a shaky vault in the team final last Tuesday. She has withdrawn from four other finals in the days since then. The balance beam final represents her last chance to come back to the field of play in the Tokyo Olympics, and to take an individual medal of any color.

USA Gymnastics confirmed Biles’s entry on Twitter, writing: “We are so excited to confirm that you will see two U.S. athletes in the balance beam final tomorrow – Suni Lee AND Simone Biles!!” 

Her surprise decision now adds yet another plot twist to one of the most extraordinary dramas of the Games. Biles had been training consistently since her withdrawal, she and American officials have said, in order to see what she might be capable of doing.

People close to Biles said that she is expected to modify her dismount, which usually relies on twisting. Biles and her coaches Cecile and Laurent Landi believed after her training on Monday that she could compete safely, the people familiar with the matter said. 

Biles had said on social media that she was suffering from a disorienting condition that has prevented her from safely or effectively executing her skills, which are among the most difficult in the sport’s history. 

Simone Biles during the women’s qualification.



Photo:

antonin thuillier/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Over the weekend, she posted video documenting her attempts to overcome the condition in a private gym in Tokyo, using soft mats as she suffered an ugly crash. In the past, she said, the condition, referred to by gymnasts as “the twisties,” has taken as many as two weeks to clear for her.

But that condition does not pose as much of a problem on the balance beam because she relies less on her ability to twist there than she does on other apparatus, except in her regular dismount.

Whatever Biles does in competition, it will ensure that the last images of her performing at the Olympics, and perhaps ever, are not of the frightening vault in the team final. That episode prompted her to withdraw from the competition to preserve her own safety and her teammates’ chances of making the podium at all.

The announcement was followed by another turnaround for American gymnasts’ fortunes minutes later: Jade Carey, who had had her own scary vault in the individual final on Sunday, took gold in the floor exercise final on Monday.

Simone Biles’s withdrawal from competitions at the Tokyo Olympics has put renewed focus on mental health in sports. WSJ looks at how the stigma and treatment for athletes’ state of mind has shifted. Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters

Biles is the reigning world champion on balance beam as well as in the all-around, and on vault and floor, after having one of the strongest international meets of her career in the fall of 2019. 

Here, she is competing under entirely different circumstances: an unnerving last outing on the competition floor, and a highly unusual week of training, aware of the cacophony around her earlier decision to withdraw from competition with support from fellow gymnasts but also sharp criticism back home.

The beam is less frightening than the fast-moving floor and vault, but it is also the apparatus where a gymnast’s confidence and focus can be most key to her ability to stay on. And Biles is not heading in the favorite, in part because of the significantly stronger performance of Chinese beam specialist Guan Chenchen in the qualification round even before her stunning withdrawal from the team final. 

Simone Biles and teammates stand as Jade Carey receives the gold medal for the floor exercise.



Photo:

Gregory Bull/Associated Press

Biles, who was cheering on Carey from the stands in the minutes after the announcement, has a 2016 Olympic bronze medal on the beam that she says she particularly cherishes because she had to pull off a mighty save in her routine to earn it.

“I feel like people neglect that medal the most because they thought it should have been a gold,” she said in an interview for The Wall Street Journal magazine. “I still went out there with not having my best performance—and I medaled. So I feel like it’s neglected and it’s like the baby of the group, so I have to protect it.”

There is a precedent here for a gymnast reworking her routines on the fly: Sunisa Lee, who won individual all-around gold here after Biles’s withdrawal, did so with a floor routine that she and her coaches had devised that morning to work around a foot injury that has dogged her.  

Some of Biles’s teammates had also appeared confident that she would re-emerge as a competitor here.

MyKayla Skinner, who filled Biles’s vacated spot in the vault final and won a silver medal, had told reporters after that “she’s still probably going to be competing.”

Biles is a singular gymnast in an unusually high-profile position both within her sport and outside of it, marketed around the world and particularly intensely in the United States as the face of the women’s apparel brand Athleta.

But other gymnasts have had particularly emotional moments here in the qualification round after their initial hopes for their performance were dashed. Danusia Francis of Jamaica, who is set to tour with Biles in the United States in the fall, went out and performed only a very brief uneven bars routine after a knee injury on the eve of Olympic competition. She declared afterward that her score was the “proudest 3 points of my life,” and was hailed as a hero at home. 

And Oksana Chusovitina, a 46-year-old eight-time Olympian, was given a standing ovation by judges, gymnasts and a sparse group of people watching after she vaulted and failed to make the final at what she insists will be her last Games. 

Oksana Chusovitina, eight-time Olympian, receives a standing ovation after her vault in what she says will be her last Olympics.



Photo:

Cao Can/Xinhua/Zuma Press

—Daniela Hernandez contributed to this article.

Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com

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