Biles: the superwoman of US gymnastics.
By Beau Dure /The Guardian
Plenty of athletes have the power to transform their sports. LeBron James changes the balance of power in the NBA every time he moves teams. Serena Williams has forced tennis to confront issues of racism and sexism. Neymar's contract demands may soon affect global GDP rankings. We should now include a 4ft 8in 21-year-old on that list. Through a perfect storm of circumstances -- a strong claim to be the greatest ever in her sport and a series of misadventures in her national federation -- she wields incomparable influence. She's Simone Biles, and she is changing gymnastics in innumerable ways. When the American competes at the World gymnastics Championships in Doha this week, few of her competitors will have any hope of challenging her. On the mat and various apparatuses, she is beyond comparison. She literally rewrote gymnastics' history at the age of 16, when she added a new, fiendishly difficult leaping tumble to the sport's code of points; in the same year she won the first of her three successive World Championship all-round titles. She was one of the stars -- in any sport -- of the 2016 Rio Olympics, winning four gold medals. She took a break in 2017, but has returned to competition this year and is as dominant as ever. It's away from the gyms and arena that she's truly flexing her muscles. She has spoken about her difficult childhood -- she entered foster care at the age of three before she was eventually adopted by her maternal grandparents -- and has worked with organisations that help children in similar situations. But it was this month, when USA gymnastics appointed a new interim president/CEO, that Biles's influence became clear. Mary Bono, a former gymnast and Republican congresswoman, was appointed to the position on 12 October. She didn't last long. The next day, gymnastics fans found a tweet of Bono drawing over a Nike swoosh in response to the company's campaign featuring quarterback-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick. Biles offered a short but pointed response on Twitter: "Don't worry, it's not like we needed a smarter USA gymnastics president or any sponsors or anything," she wrote. Bono promptly deleted her original tweet, but a headline in Deadspin summed up the situation in US gymnastics: "Simone Biles Has All The Power, And She Knows It." Fellow Olympic champion Aly Raisman then followed up Biles's lead. She attacked Bono for her ties to a consulting firm she accused of failing to act on the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal while it worked with USA gymnastics. On 16 October, Bono resigned. Under fire from Biles and Raisman, her reign hadn't even lasted a week. Even before the Bono incident Biles had emerged as a fearsome force for change within USA gymnastics in the wake of the Nassar scandal, which shook the sport to its core. Biles wasn't the first athlete to say she was a survivor of Nassar, the longtime USA gymnastics team doctor who pled guilty to the charges and is now serving an effective life sentence for his crimes. That would be Rachel Denhollander , who broke the long-standing silence on Nassar and eventually opened the floodgates for a wave of survivors to tell their stories, many of them Olympic medallists. While Biles did not appear at Nassar's hearing to tell her story of abuse under his care, she has made a powerful impact, using her position as the sport's biggest star to change gymnastics, often with an economy of words. In August, two days before the US Championships, Biles responded to a question about the overhauled management of USA gymnastics -- including Kerry Perry, who had been named president/CEO in November 2017 and had been criticised for her inaction over the Nassar scandal. With a succinct but withering statement Biles said: "Hopefully, it's going in the right direction but nobody can know until Kerry Perry speaks up. It's kind of hard." Biles was then asked if Perry should step up and speak more. "Yes," Biles said. "It's her job." Less than a month later Perry resigned. Biles's implicit support of Kaepernick during Bono's attack on the quarterback is interesting. Although the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback's activism has attracted far more attention than Biles's own foray into social issues, her impact has arguably been more concrete. Kaepernick deserves immense credit for influencing the national conversation on race and freedom of expression in America, but the NFL has dug in its heels on national anthem protests and he is still without a team. Biles, in contrast, has helped remove two CEOs from her sport's governing body, advocated for abuse survivors and arrived in Doha as the finest gymnast in the world. She clearly isn't going away either: she has spoken of her desire to compete at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. It's a safe bet she won't be silent -- or powerless -- in the run-up to the Games, and perhaps for years to come.
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