Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast ever and probably the most dominant active athlete in the world. Last October, she won her fifth all-around title at the World Championships, part of a five-medal blitz that brought her career total of gold medals at the Worlds to 19 — more than double the total of any other female gymnast in history. This summer, she was set to continue that run at the Olympics in Tokyo … until the coronavirus changed the entire landscape of sports.
With the Olympics now postponed until 2021, Biles continues to train but hasn’t officially committed to competing, citing the mental strain of focusing on peak performance for 15 more months — along with her ongoing frustrations with how USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, addressed the abuse she and many fellow athletes suffered at the hands of former team physician Larry Nassar.
Biles would be favored to win many gold medals no matter when the Olympics were held; she hasn’t lost an all-around competition she entered since 2013. But she will also be 24 next summer, which is practically ancient for a gymnast. Because of her age — and the Olympics schedule during her career — we might only ever see Biles compete in one Summer Games.
“The physical part is not going to be the problem,” Biles said of her challenges looking ahead to 2021. And if any athlete were going to defy Father Time, it might be the one who just keeps getting more dominant. But according to data provided by Olympedia.org, only three female artistic gymnasts over the age of 22 have won any sort of Olympic gold since 1972: Elvira Saadi (age 24) and Lyudmila Turishcheva (23) in the team all-around in 1976, and Sanne Wevers (24) on the balance beam in 2016. The oldest to win the individual all-around gold in that time frame was Simona Amânar in 2000, just weeks shy of her 21st birthday.
So Biles, at age 23, was already trying to push the limits of the aging curve for gymnasts this summer — much less next summer. To further illustrate this, here’s a distribution of Olympic gold medals by age for all female artistic gymnasts since 1952 (when medals were first awarded for the sport’s separate events), including team and individual events:
Of all Olympic golds won by female artistic gymnasts in our sample, 81 percent were awarded before the athletes reached the age of 24. Again, Biles is already a mold-breaking athlete, so maybe that won’t matter next summer. But she is at the stage of her career where every extra year of aging matters, in a sport that disproportionately favors the very young — where even multi-time gold winners with noted longevity are done with the Olympics by age 20 (like Gabby Douglas) or 22 (like Aly Raisman).
In her lone Olympic appearance to date, Biles won four gold medals, which already put her in the conversation of greatest Olympians ever. But even before disaster struck in 2020, she had been somewhat unlucky in terms of how the Summer Olympic cycle matched up with the years of her life. Biles turned 15 years old in 2012, making her ineligible for the U.S. senior national team and that year’s Olympics. Biles debuted as a senior the following March and won her first all-around gold at the World Championships later that year, so she likely would have done the same at the 2012 Olympics if her age-16 season had happened to fall just a year earlier. And although Biles took all of 2017 off following her stellar showing at the 2016 Olympics, her subsequent performances make it easy to imagine that she still would have dominated the 2016 Games if they had happened to fall in her age-20 season. If all that was true, then Biles would potentially be looking ahead to her third Olympics now instead of her second, with at least a few extra gold medals to her name.
Biles actually would have been eligible for the 2012 Games in an earlier era. Up until 1981, gymnasts could be as young as 14; from 1981 through 1996, a gymnast simply had to turn 15 in the year of the Olympics to be eligible for the senior national team. (The rule was changed after the 1996 Olympics so that athletes must turn 16 in an Olympic year.) That’s how 1990s icons Shannon Miller and Kerri Strug were able to start their Olympic careers in their age-15 seasons, while Biles was merely competing (and winning golds) in junior events at that age.
Regardless of when Biles got her Olympic start, the truth is that an elite career in women’s gymnastics is incredibly short. Even the most successful Olympians tend to compete in no more than two games, with very few exceptions. But the timing of the cycles — and now the delay of the 2020 Games — could affect Biles more than most. If she decides to compete next summer, she’ll be doing it at an age when almost no recent gymnasts have won gold medals, long after the ordinary primes of her peers. And if Biles doesn’t compete, then one of the most dominant and decorated athletes to ever compete in an Olympic sport will somehow have participated in only a single Olympic Games during her storied career.