There was a point during her sky-shattering leap at the U.S. Classic last Saturday that Simone Biles appeared to blur the line between gymnast and numen. In the midst of her final backflip before vaulting herself in the air, Biles looked like a comet—and had the speed and energy to match. She was attempting a move called the Yurchenko double pike, named in honor of Russian gymnast Natalia Yurchenko. No other woman had previously performed this move in competition (not even Yurchenko), and only a few men ever had. The Yurchenko requires a gymnast to do a roundoff onto the springboard and then a back handspring onto the vault, at which point they are tasked with channeling enough momentum to launch skyward, flip twice with their body folded and legs straight, and open just in time to stick a perilous landing. The maneuver is equal parts violence and grace. Biles nailed it in her very first attempt.
The crowd loved it. Fans in Indianapolis roared in approval as Biles settled on the mat. The move was a reminder to all of the other contestants that they were, for all intents and purposes, competing for second place.
The judges, though, were not nearly as impressed. Biles won the U.S. Classic all-around title with ease, but her Yurchenko double pike received a provisional scoring value of just 6.6. That’s similar to provisional scores given to other, less audacious vaults.
Each vault in an International Gymnastics Federation event is assigned a provisional starting value in accordance with its degree of difficulty. According to USA Gymnastics, this value “is determined by totaling values for the 10 most difficult skills, which includes the dismount.” While Biles’s attempt was historically unprecedented in terms of its rigor, its starting value capped her potential scoring range. There is a train of thought that posits this judgment was a means for the federation to discourage lesser competitors from attempting such a dangerous move. Yet to the champion gymnast and her troupe it was nothing but fear in the water.
“It doesn’t seem to be consistent with what they’ve done with other vault values,” United States women’s national team coordinator Tom Forster told The New York Times of the ruling. Biles, whose ability to cut through bullshit rivals her acrobatic skill, went after the judges more directly. “They don’t want the field to be too far apart,” she said. “They had an open-ended code of points and now they’re mad that people are too far ahead and excelling.”
For as much as the maneuver itself sparked a frenzy, the optics of the judges’ decision ignited a storm. Biles—by virtually any measure the greatest gymnast in history, and a Black woman in a sport with the racial variance of a tall glass of milk—entered her first competition in more than 18 months, landed the most impressive and difficult move imaginable, and was given a score that not-so-subtly told her not to do it again.
It is not the best look for gymnastics, assuming, like so much about the sport, looks were the objective here. And yet, considering the vast history of these sorts of decisions, the judgment is thoroughly unsurprising. The undertow of modern athletics is that a woman like Biles can simultaneously be treated as the face of gymnastics and still something foreign to it.
The thing to remember about American beliefs is they’re never really new. There have been myths, for instance, as to whose claims to humanity are rightful and whose are not for as long as white people have been on this continent. John Lining, a colonial physician who lived in South Carolina, is cited by historians as an early peddler of the idea that there are innate physiological distinctions between people of different races. In Lining’s most famous text, which included his notes on Charleston’s 1748 yellow fever outbreak, he wrote, “There is something very singular in the constitution of the Negroes, which renders them not liable to this fever.” The implication in Lining’s message spread like wildfire.
Throughout 18th- and 19th-century slavocracy, similar theories were extolled as a means to justify bondage and its attendant violence. Myths of unlimited pain tolerance, unique muscle groupings, and increased physical prowess were seared onto Blackness, with those fictions propagated as fact. There is no way to understand modern perceptions of the human body—its limits and abilities, depths and promise—without first grappling with the legacy and outgrowth of these doctrines, both inside and outside of the United States.
And there is no way of separating athletics from this culture. For as much as the history of sports has been defined by advancements in athletic greatness, it is equally defined by an inherent distrust of Black physicality; a subtle but unshakable fear of the types of unbridled dominance that expand the confines of a given game or event.
In 1967, it was this fear that motivated the National Basketball Committee of the United States and Canada to ban the slam dunk in collegiate play. A wave of Black stars led by a wiry Harlemite named Lew Alcindor had begun to enter the college ranks in the wake of desegregation, carrying with them a distinct and innovative style. Faced with the specter of Black dominance, the committee outlawed one of the most effective methods of scoring, with a longtime committee member saying, “The feeling was that this was a game of skill and the dunk was not a skillful maneuver.”
Throughout the 1990s, this fear impacted Surya Bonaly, the only figure skater ever to successfully land a backflip on one leg in competition. Instead of being celebrated for her feats, the Black French national was demonized for her athleticism in the rink. Bonaly stuck out like a sore thumb in a sport dominated by white Americans and Europeans, and was branded a heretic. “Even though she was wonderful [and] spectacular and she did great performances, she didn’t look like the ‘ice princess,’” former U.S. Olympic coach Frank Carroll said. Facing an establishment that devalued physical skill in deference to a sectarian comportment, Bonaly was often forced to choose between assimilation and obscurity. “In the mind you stay the same. But you change the appearance. The outside,” she told Sports Illustrated of her response to the sport’s climate.
In 2002, this fear was palpable when the famed Augusta National Golf Club reacted to the unparalleled peak of a young Tiger Woods by stretching its course length to new extremes; in 2018, it was patently clear when Serena Williams was subjected to what appeared to be a targeted U.S. Anti-Doping Agency drug-testing program. In almost every incarnation of integrated sports, a tension between the harnessing and limiting of Black athletic grandeur has festered in full view.
To frame the interplay between Biles and the International Gymnastics Federation as somehow separate from this lineage would be foolish at best and deceptive at worst. And the coming steps in the conflict appear to be eerily predictable. The federation will either defend its provisional scoring system or it won’t. It’s now been six days since the U.S. Classic, and the governing body has yet to issue a statement on the decision. Even in the unlikely scenario that the federation issues an outright reversal of the policy, it would do nothing to erase the sticky and glaring truth that what happened to the greatest gymnast of all time last weekend was the latest in a kind of anticompetitive censoring as old as the culture of American athletics itself; that time and again, certain competitors are told their craft is of value only to be reminded that those terms go only so far.
If policing Biles’s ability to dominate is the objective, the International Gymnastics Federation invites a line of inquiry as tired as the legacy to which it is owed: What does the federation believe her to be capable of? And what is it really trying to protect?
Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the vault’s provisional scoring value came on a scale of 1 to 10. In 2006, the International Gymnastics Federation moved to an open-ended scoring system that is no longer limited to a maximum of 10.