INDIANAPOLIS — Simone Biles still isn’t the problem.
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.”
No, actually, it is not OK. The FIG is being pig-headed and petty, just as it was two years ago when it undervalued Biles’ double-twisting, double somersault dismount on balance beam.
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.
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.
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.
“It’s not about fair or not fair. The sport is the sport,” Laurent Landi, who coaches Biles along with his wife, Cecile, said last month. “Somebody who has high potential and abilities, you need to give them the edge compared to somebody else. I thought that was the main reason of the open Code of Points, to really separate the good from the greats.
“And they’ve actually tried to go back, to not separating, to put them in the same basket.”
If this was really about safety, the FIG could use the execution score to dissuade gymnasts from throwing skills they can’t actually do. A three or four for execution, when elite gymnasts are used to getting eights and nines, would get everyone’s attention real quick.
That wouldn’t keep Biles in check, though. Which reveals the FIG’s sham for exactly what it is.
“Because I’m capable of it,” Biles said, when asked why she bothers. “I know it’s not the correct value that we would want, but I can still do it. So why not just show off my ability and athleticism?”
The 6.6 start value that judges gave Biles’ new vault was based on a “pre-determination” by the FIG. Now that she’s done it in competition, Forster hopes the FIG will take another look at Biles’ vault and give it a score that more accurately reflects its difficulty.
It should – unless, of course, it prefers to be the object of widespread ridicule for the next 2½ months.
People don’t need to know the difference between a Cheng and a Yurchenko vault to know when something isn’t fair. Biles is doing exactly what the FIG envisioned when it changed its scoring system to encourage gymnasts to test the limits of what is possible, and yet she’s being punished for it.
The problem isn’t that Biles’ skills are too big. The problem is that the FIG’s thinking is too small.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.