After the Russian Olympic Committee beat the U.S. women's gymnastics team by over a point in qualifications at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, many assumed Team USA would bounce back for the team final. After all, they had Simone Biles, right?
But in a shocking turn Tuesday, that was not the case. Biles dropped out of the competition for an undisclosed medical reason, leaving the U.S. gymnasts at a major disadvantage.
Team USA should be proud that its remaining competitors were able to win silver under such difficult circumstances. However, the situation exposed the Americans' overreliance on Biles and could signal the end of an era of their unchallenged dominance.
The Russian Olympic Committee performed relatively well in team finals, coming back from two balance-beam falls in the third rotation to take the gold by more than three points in the four-event competition. But sadly, it was not a victory over the best team in the world. It was contingent upon Biles having a major error on vault in the Americans' opening event and then scratching.
Team USA's remaining three athletes—Grace McCallum, Jordan Chiles and Sunisa Lee—showed real grit in the face of adversity in the team final. Each came through for Biles with a clutch performance.
Chiles, who was originally replaced in the beam lineup after having two falls in qualifications, hit there and on bars. Lee, who is still on the road back from an ankle injury, replaced Biles on floor. They are a testament to how strong and deep this team is even without its star.
However, their loss is a testament to how much this team has relied on Biles' dominance for the past eight years. Not having the GOAT to bring in the big numbers was a big hit to the Americans' final score.
Back in April, ROC national team coordinator Valentina Rodionenko said of Biles: "You remove her and we will easily beat them." That statement proved prescient Tuesday.
The score was close going into the final rotation, with both teams on the floor exercise. But without Biles' massive potential score, it would have taken a series of major errors for the ROC to lose.
Biles was set to compete on all four events Tuesday—she still has eight more routines to go in these Olympics if competes in the all-around and event finals—and has by leaps and bounds the most international experience of the team. Her teammates rely on her to provide leadership and support, and she even did that after being sidelined, as she stayed on the competition floor to support them (and Angelina Melnikova).
Even for an athlete of Biles' caliber, the weight of those expectations is astronomical. In an emotional Instagram post after the team's disappointing qualification outing, Biles said, "I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times."
The expectation to be a team leader may be even stronger now, as leadership does not seem to be coming from on high. After the subpar qualification round, U.S. national team coordinator Tom Forster did not express worry, telling the media "it will all work out" before brusquely leaving a press availability.
Forster's strategy for choosing the team has also been widely criticized, as he opted to choose the team based on rank order after the Olympic trials rather than taking the potentially highest-scoring team. At the time, he claimed that "a few tenths" wouldn't matter, and to be fair, they wouldn't have Tuesday. But having MyKayla Skinner on the team could have brought in valuable experience here, along with potentially strong routines on vault, beam and floor.
Hopefully his team selection process will be more strategic in the future, because at these Olympics, the ROC has shown that it should not be underestimated. In qualifications, the idea that the gold was all but guaranteed for the U.S. has been dashed, as the ROC harkened back to the days of Russian dominance in the sport when it hit 12 of 12 routines to place first. The ROC deserves a lot of credit for such a brilliant performance in qualifications and to pull off the win in the final despite those two beam falls.
It's just a shame that it comes with a caveat—that the U.S. was without its star—when in reality, the ROC has one of the strongest teams we've seen in a long time. The team is led by an incredible trio of athletes, including Melnikova, a veteran, and two others who are still up-and-coming. Viktoria Listunova, for one, wouldn't even have been able to participate last year, as she wouldn't have been age-eligible, and 16-year-old Vladislava Urazova is expected to make a splash in the all-around final.
Their strength combined with Biles' impending retirement means that future team finals are bound to get more interesting, and these Games may be a preview of what's to come. But that doesn't mean the U.S. women have failed—or will have failed.
A "bad" day for the U.S. is a great day for most other teams, and a silver medal in the team final with two athletes qualified for every individual final is nothing to scoff at.
As the ROC gymnasts celebrated their win, Biles congratulated them and stood on the podium with her teammates, happily displaying their silver medals. At the end of the day, having a silver as your fallback option isn't a bad place to be.