Sports Illustrated’s cover shoot was out of date before it hit the newsstands. Simone Biles, posing with fellow US multi-medallists Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, has three golds around her neck. Expect meme artists to be photoshopping in her fourth already.
The sport’s new mega-star said goodbye to Rio with one last victory in the floor final, the fifth female gymnast to take four golds at a single Olympics, and only the third American woman – after Ledecky and Missy Franklin – to win finish a Games with five medals. And if that was not enough, Zac Efron, her great crush, turned up to support her and give her a victory kiss. Cue many, many pictures on her Twitter feed: “Just call me Mrs Efron already.”
Meanwhile, 16-year-old Amy Tinkler took bronze to become Britain’s youngest medallist in 32 years. While Biles’s achievement was a nailed-on certainty, Tinkler’s podium finish – the first for a British woman on the floor – left her “in total shock”. “This is crazy,” she said. “I didn’t even expect to make a final, never mind get a medal.”
Like the high bar final for the men, the floor is the most eye-catching of the women’s events, hitting the sweet spot on the Venn diagram where pure athleticism meets artistic entertainment and so redolent of childhood trips to the circus that you feel you should be watching with a stick of candyfloss in hand.
If Biles could not complete a much-mooted clean sweep of five gold medals – her bronze on the beam was a whispered reminder of her mortality – then she is still a wonder of the sporting world. With her extraordinary power-to-height ratio, she packs more tumbles into a single traverse than anyone alive, catapulting her 4ft 8in body into the air is if there are jet packs hidden in the soles of her feet.
She looked unusually serious when she was first announced to the crowd. Was there something a little forced in that smile to the judges, that flash of teeth? “My legs felt like rocks,” she admitted later, “but I’ve done floor routines like that before so I wasn’t nervous about it.”
Her usual bounce was back the moment the music began – a samba beat to which she wiggled her hips and shimmied her shoulders with a finesse the local crowd loudly appreciated. Witnessing her signature move – the double layout with a half-twist on landing – in an Olympic final is the gymnastics equivalent of hearing the Beatles playing Sergeant Pepper at the Hollywood Bowl. The crowd here screamed almost as loud when she landed it.
Until that point Tinkler’s 14.933 – a third of a point above her qualification score – had been unexpectedly leading the board. Tinkler, who trains at the entirely pink South Durham Gymnastics Club, has the charisma of a West End dancer. Her background music is a crowd-pleasing Pretty Woman mash-up, and her reflective leotard made beautiful silver arcs as she sprang winsomely along the diagonals.
“I could hear the noise,” she said. “As I was doing the routine they were clapping along. That definitely helps. As soon as I finished my routine, I knew I couldn’t do any better.” Aly Raisman, however, could. The US team captain performed with the grandeur befitting her status as the defending Olympic champion, and her 15.500 knocked Tinkler down to third.
Vanessa Ferrari – who had qualified in third place – stood between Tinkler and the podium. The Italian had won a world championship on floor when Tinkler was only seven. She amped up the emotion in a dramatic, romantic routine. The melody of Nessun Dorma strained through the PA, as if pleading with the judges for their consideration. There was a long, long wait as they considered Ferrari’s score. Earlier, Tinkler had clasped her hands tightly as she waited for her own, now she seemed almost nonchalant. “I would have been happy with wherever I was placed,” she admitted afterwards. She did have to redo her mascara before the medal ceremony, though.
There is something telling about gymnasts’ floor routines, as if their personality cannot help but seep out of them. Wang Yan of China, for instance, marches stompily round the floor pumping angry little arms and looks like a kid working out her angst in her bedroom. Which, since she is only 16, she may well be doing.
It seemed perfectly appropriate that Biles’s last competitive pose in the Olympics should leave her looking at the sky: she has, after all, been reaching for the sun.
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