Next stop Tokyo for Simone Biles.
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With Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps both retired since the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. gymnast will be the face of the games for much of the world.
In gymnastics, no one else comes close. Biles won five of the six gold medals at last week’s world championships and broke the all-time record of 25 medals by any gymnast, male or female.
“She’s just above anything else that we have seen in the sport,” five-time Olympic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci said of Biles on Sunday, praising “the domination that she has toward all the other gymnasts that competed here.”
Biles has not just got the talent. She’s got the character of an Olympic star.
There’s the laser-like focus on training, the same easygoing humor which endeared the world to Bolt, and — crucially in the modern era — a savvy social-media style.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said Sunday that Biles’ star status would make gymnastics a must-see event at the Tokyo Olympics.
“You can have legends confirming their status as we have just seen with Simone Biles, this amazing performance there on the beam, but you also have new stars,” he said. “Gymnastics has all the ingredients to be top another time, I must say. A top Olympic event in Tokyo.”
Despite its dispute with Biles over the scoring for her new double-double beam dismount — its grade was lessened in part so as not to encourage less-skilled gymnasts to attempt the risky move — the International Gymnastics Federation knows Biles is crucial to the sport.
Labeling her “wonder woman” and “a hero,” FIG president Morinari Watanabe is keen for Biles not to retire after the Tokyo Olympics. “I hope she will continue after 2020, because she is an excellent athlete,” he said Sunday.
Biles is certainly the only athlete who could pull off her look in training at the U.S. nationals in August. She caused a stir with a leotard bearing her surname and a goat’s head picked out in sequins, a nod to “Greatest Of All Time.”
Few disagree, but Biles hasn’t yet won everyone over.
“There’s no need to turn her into some unbeatable queen. If I was 15 years younger, I’d definitely take the fight to the American,” the Russian gymnast Svetlana Khorkina said in comments on the Russian Olympic Committee website Thursday.
Khorkina won 20 world championship medals between 1994 and 2001 and held the women’s record until Biles overtook her Tuesday.
One record is likely to remain out of Biles’ reach, however. Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina won a record 15 Olympic medals between 1956 and 1964. Biles won five Olympic medals in Rio de Janeiro, and could add six more next year in Tokyo, but appears highly unlikely to stick around until the 2024 Olympics.
However, there’s another record to aim for. Matching her world championship performance from last week would make Biles the first female gymnast to win five gold medals at a single Olympics, and the first female athlete to do so in any sport since East German swimmer Kristin Otto in 1988.
After Biles pioneered a new beam dismount and triple-double on the floor this season, her coach Laurent Landi says he favors refining her existing routines for the Olympics over adding yet more upgrades.
“I can find plenty of (upgrades), but you need to be realistic and only the medals count at the end,” he said. “We don’t need to show off everything we can do.”