RIO DE JANEIRO — The Final Five were down to the Final Two. That’s what Marta Karolyi called Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, the gymnasts who would perform the last two routines of Karolyi’s legendary career. And then, in a dramatic finish, Biles and Raisman …
Oh, who are we kidding? There was no drama. There was just a finish. Gold for Biles in the floor exercise – her fourth gold of the Olympics. Silver for Raisman. Green for the envious rest of the world.
This was a testament to Biles’s greatness, of course. She is so far above all the other gymnasts that rain hits her first. As American Laurie Hernandez told Raisman before the floor exercise, “If you get silver again, you’re the best, because Simone doesn’t count.” Raisman was so amused, and so completely in agreement, that she relayed the anecdote later.
But it was an even greater testament to Karolyi. As she heads into retirement at 74, step back and appreciate the dynasty she built, with the support of USA Gymnastics, her husband Bela and coaches around the United States.
Final 2016 women’s gymnastics medal count:
United States: four gold, four silver, one bronze.
Everybody else: two gold, two silver, three bronze.
Hey, Biles is amazing. She is the shortest member of the trio on the cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated, but she is every bit as dominant as Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky. She is the best gymnast in history. Whatever she endorses, I’m buying in bulk.
But Biles could have spent the last week in Peru and the U.S. still would have dominated the Olympics.
“We could have fielded two teams here, and they would have gone first and second,” said Aimee Boorman, Biles’s coach. “Maybe first, second, and fourth—third or fourth—if we threw in a third team. The [USA gymnastics] program that’s in place is amazing, the athletes are amazing, the coaches are amazing. We’re all on the same page here.”
That page is part of a book that looks like it will never end. The U.S. has won the last four individual all-around golds, going back to 2004, and a different gymnast did it each time: Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and now Biles. The semi-centralized U.S. system, put in place in 1999, simply took over the sport.
“It really showed the superiority in comparison to other systems,” Karolyi said. “I’m very happy, and I’m very satisfied.”
There will be a lot of speculation on whether Biles will return in 2020, when she will be 23. She has not made a decision, which is smart. There is no reason to rush. Until now, there was no reason to even think about it.
“She hasn’t said anything specifically,” Boorman said. “She wants to go to college. I don’t know if she’ll continue doing gymnastics while she is in college.”
Historically, 19-year-old gymnasts who dominate the Olympics do not try to do it again at 23. But historically, swimmers who dominate the Olympics do not return for three more, and that is what Phelps did. Different sports, sure, but Phelps showed that competing in multiple Olympics is much more lucrative than the old model of becoming a star in one Olympics and moving on. That’s not the only consideration for Biles, but it’s one to consider.
And yet, as silly as this sounds, the U.S. can afford to lose the best gymnast in history. As Boorman said, “There’s always somebody in the USA gymnastics system who is ready to step in.”
Karolyi said, “We have a whole generation coming up. They just need to step in the shoes of these girls and continue.”
USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny has not named a successor for Karolyi, and she said, “Nobody asked me, really. I am pretty confident they will choose the right person.”
It’s a big decision. But maybe not quite as big as it seems. The system will be in place—only a fool would dismantle it. The U.S. will be in great shape no matter whom Penny chooses. Maybe that’s the best compliment you can pay Marta Karolyi: she built a program that’s so dominant, it doesn’t need Marta Karolyi anymore.