Some people do not understand the Olympic Games. They think you need to have a gold medal draped around your neck to be a winner.
They think you have to cross the line first, or win the most points, or jump the furthest, or swim the fastest, to be a winner. But those people are wrong. In fact, they could not be more wrong.
Some people will say there is sophistry in this argument but Simone Biles was the biggest winner in Tokyo last week because she finally took control of her life.
Simone Biles decided to pull-out of her events at the Tokyo Olympics to prioritise herself
Elite sport can be the best time of an athlete like Biles’ life but it can beat them up as well
This is a young woman who has been physically and mentally abused in the name of excellence, who has been betrayed and controlled. Last week, she stopped doing what other people wanted her to do and said: ‘Enough.’
What could be more inspiring than that? What could be more of a victory than that? A victory that goes beyond the parameters of sport. This is a woman who is the only survivor of the crimes of the former USA gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, still competing and this is her statement.
Struggling with the ‘twisties’, gymnastics’ version of the yips, was part of a wider concern for her own mental health. Mental uncertainty in gymnastics comes at high risk but it felt as if what Biles did when she went public with her struggle and pulled out of the team event after one vault, empowered her more than any beam exercise or floor routine ever could.
Elite sport can be the best time of an athlete’s life but it can beat them up, too. It can trap them in dysfunction. It can imprison them in the expectations of others. It can ruin them for the rest of their lives if they let it.
Biles was favourite for gold but she’s set an example that athletes can stop before they snap
Naomi Osaka’s stances of mental health have also been a key development for athletes
What’s the point in a gold medal if all it leaves is emptiness and a blighted life? What’s the point in a gold medal if all it leaves is a struggle to move on? That’s not a victory.
Biles had the courage to break that chain when she walked off the floor at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on Tuesday. And by doing what she did, she empowered other athletes to do the same.
If they feel as if they are breaking, then they can stop before they snap. Biles, and Naomi Osaka, enabled that change.
I was there at the same arena on Thursday night to see Biles cheering on her team-mate Sunisa Lee, who won the women’s all-around gold medal that Biles would have been favourite for if she had not pulled out. Lee was overcome with joy. She was a winner that night. So was Biles.
That sense of there being more than one victor in a race or a fight or a game is what draws people like me to the Olympics time and time and time again. Everyone has their own idea of what winning is and the Olympics allows us all to indulge our own interpretations of that in a way other events don’t.
That is what allows even a Games as troubled and diminished as these Tokyo Olympics to lift us up and make our spirits soar. ‘The essential thing in life,’ Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics said, ‘is not conquering but fighting well’. And that remains.
A few hours before Biles wrestled back control on Tuesday evening, I was standing in a near-deserted mixed zone at the Makuhari Messe Hall, on the other side of Tokyo Bay, talking to Pita Taufatofua, the Tongan taekwondo athlete famous for his shirtless, copiously oiled appearances as his nation’s flag-bearer at Olympic opening ceremonies.
Each athlete in Olympic events has their story and it’s not just a medal that decides who wins
Taufatofua had just lost heavily in his first fight of the day. He had been beaten 24-3 by his Russian opponent, Vladislav Larin, who went on to win the gold medal in their +80kg category.
But Taufatofua was not downcast. In fact, when I asked him why it was worth it to devote so much effort and pain to lose in the first round, as he had done in Rio, he could not stop smiling.
‘That was the best match I’ve ever played,’ he said. ‘I’ve been a sportsman my whole life and I like the fact that I just fought the world No 1. That’s the only way I can test myself. I’m not here to beat up everybody. I’m here to become a better version of myself.
‘I’m doing this for who’s next. The Olympics, for me, isn’t so much about the athlete. It’s about the people watching. The billions of people who are trying to overcome things in their own lives.
‘The athlete is a representation of us trying to overcome. I am fighting a world champion. I’m trying to overcome. If people see us, trying and pushing, maybe it can help them try and push. If that happens, that’s a big win.’
The Olympics blurs those lines between winning and losing like no other sporting event. On Thursday morning, I sat by the side of the regatta course at Sea Forest Waterway and watched Helen Glover and Polly Swann finish just outside the medals in the women’s four, another statistic in a GB rowing performance that has provoked an inquest about funding and toxic culture.
Helen Glover and Polly Swann finished fourth but nobody can tell them they were losers here
Glover has had three children since the Rio Olympics. Swann, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University, worked for much of last year at St John’s Hospital in Livingston as a doctor during the pandemic.
Maybe somebody would like to tell them, and women who look to them for encouragement, that they weren’t winners at these Olympics.
Sure, the rowing performance might have been disappointing in medal terms compared to previous Olympics.
But I look at Graeme Thomas, who was robbed of competing at Rio on the eve of the Games when he contracted a flu-like virus and who worked and sweated and grafted and sacrificed for five years to make it to Tokyo and I see a winner. Even though he didn’t get a medal. He’s an Olympian now. That’s a win.
I look at Jack Beaumont, who fought his way back from a horrific injury a few years ago and won silver here in the men’s quadruple sculls, and I see a winner.
Tom Dumoulin took a six month break from cycling this year, and returned to win silver
I know what a decent man Beaumont is and I loved seeing how proud he and his team-mates were of that medal. They have given everything for five years in the pursuit of their Olympic dream and they won silver. They won.
Stories of great wins without gold are everywhere at these Games. Ronald Brown survived cancer and fought his way back into the South Africa rugby sevens team.
They did not do as well as they were expected to but Brown’s presence in the team was as great a triumph as any. ‘A champion without a medal,’ the South African website New Frame called him.
Tom Dumoulin, the Dutch cyclist, took nearly six months out of the sport this year, citing mental health struggles, before winning silver in the men’s time trial last week. Another winner.
As for Biles, who has pulled out of Sunday’s individual vault and uneven bars events, there is a faint chance she will return for the beam or the floor.
If she does, some will talk about a quest for redemption but whether she comes back or not, there is nothing for her to redeem. She already won.
There is a slim chance Simone Biles will be back at this Games but it won’t make any difference
I went to the Nippon Budokan on Friday afternoon, because it is the most beautiful of all the Tokyo Olympics’ venues.
Bob Dylan played a famous concert there, too, and I’ve got the album so I wanted to visit for that reason, too. The judo was OK as well.
Every time a commentator at one of the venues at the Tokyo Games mentions an athlete competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, it is a slap in the face for clean sport.
Russia is supposed to be banned from these Games for its state-sponsored doping programme but it is not banned and the farcical pretence otherwise shames the IOC.
Every time a commentator mentions an athlete competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, it is a slap in the face for clean sport