Simone Biles has entered these Olympics as Tokyo’s defining athlete; an individual creating a new lexicon and limits. Her supremacy had seemed beyond question.
The sight of her marching stony-faced out of the gymnastics arena yesterday, fastidiously avoiding eye contact with those looking to ask questions about her performance, was a salutary reminder that no-one is above the contest. The uncertainties of sport are what make it so compelling.
Some perspective is needed. Biles made three extraordinary false steps, with flawed dismounts on the beam and vault, as well as a twisting double back somersault which sent her flying out of bounds on the floor.
Simone Biles gave her rivals hope on a rare off day for the American at the Olympics
The 24-year-old made uncharacteristic errors during her beam, vault and floor routines
Biles could have five gold medals around her neck by the end of play on Tuesday though
She failed to make the uneven bars final. Yet she still finished all-round qualifying in first spot and could win five golds in Tuesday’s finals.
But there was proof of mortality and possibly even complacency. After the vault landing which sent her right foot off the mat came a vivid facial expression which is destined to become one of the iconic clips of these Games.
Biles rolled her eyes and flashed a sheepish grin. In that moment, it was hard to avoid the thought that talk of her being insuperable had removed just a fraction of the competitive edge.
Her floor landing shocked the most. Biles had barely taken to the arena at the time, shrugging off the back pack the Americans carried in a way which suggested an impatience to compete.
The loud contingent of her compatriots in the Ariake Gymnastics Centre gasped as she landed off the mat and even off the beige raised competition floor.
Her awkward landing, several inches below the level of the mat, could have done her ankle ligament damage.
There was redemption on the vault, where her second performance was the day’s most outstanding – though there has as yet been no sign of the much-anticipated Yurchenko double pike which no woman has ever attempted in competition.
But on the beam, which has always tested her most, she over-rotated her full-twisting double back somersault, stumbling out of the landing position to record a distinctly underwhelming 14.066 points, the seventh-best performance of the day in that discipline.
There is not time to recover poise or catch a breath when you are Biles. Flushed after the floor display, the 24-year-old fanned herself with her hand.
The Russian female gymnasts outshone their American counterparts on an interesting day
A stadium camera crew immediately loomed in on her and she regained her public persona, blowing a kiss towards the seating area.
It didn’t help that her teammates were distinctly beneath their anticipated level, contributing to what had become a US national inquisition by the end of the day, as the gymnasts representing Russia qualified for the team event ahead of them.
USA Gymnastics performance director Tom Forster, who divides opinion, was left to answer for this – admitting that Biles’ steps out of bounds had not exactly helped.
Asked how the team could improve before tomorrow’s finals, he said: ‘Fixing steps on the floor. Simone took three big steps and I’ve never seen her do that before. These things are all fixable.’
But it was a far worse day for Jordan Chiles, whose 32nd-place finish in the all-round standings was way below what members of a US team are expected to deliver.
MyKayla Skinner, controversially pre-selected for individual disciplines and not the USA team event, will not take a medal now, despite outperforming Grace McCallum, who did make the team.
It was also a day to forget for the likes of Jordan Chiles (pictured) and Grace McCallum
Forster curiously insisted that selection decisions were not made on the basis of medals alone. ‘We did not make decisions over a couple of tenths for a medal,’ he said. Many Americans would feel he should have done.
The hand-wringing was far removed from the refreshing outcome for the young British team, who had competed three hours earlier.
The 17-year-old twins Jessica and Jennifer Gadirova had minimal experience of international competition.
Yet their excellent performances put them both into the All-Round final for the best 24 gymnasts from qualifying. They also helped Great Britain into the final for the top eight teams.
It was on the floor that the sisters’ supreme confidence most revealed itself, with Jessica’s score in that discipline the fourth best of qualifying and less than a tenth of a point behind Biles’.
The delight the pair expressed afterwards, in an interview with Sportsmail, was a contrast to the Americans po-faced reluctance to speak.
Twins Jennifer (pictured) and Jessica Gadirova have both made into the all-round final
‘I love to do floor so much,’ said Jennifer, who finished tenth there. ‘I love to perform. Not a lot of people can do that because they’re so nervous and find it hard to interact with other people through their emotions. I think that’s something me and my sister are really good at and really works.’
She was one place outside the top eight spot which would have seen her reach the floor final, though Jessica comfortably made it.
The decision to omit Becky Downie from the team remains controversial. The score in uneven bars – where Downie excels – was down 2.400 on the world championship qualification last year.
It was a particularly tough session for Alice Kinsella, whose disappointing landings in uneven bars and vault left her visibly upset.
Biles and Co will certainly return with something to prove. ‘We had some things to work on before the finals,’ said Foster, who insisted his team had not taken winning for granted. ‘This could be a good awakening for us. And we’ll take it.’