To the limit

If you are a casual gymnastics fan – a once-every-four-years watcher – you have probably lamented the loss of the perfect 10 in the sport. I certainly have. The perfect 10 was what introduced me to gymnastics, what gave the sport its Olympic power. Imagine – the sport seemed to be saying – being PERFECT. That’s a pretty fascinating idea.

Well, don’t weep for the perfect 10. Its destruction created this glorious and implausible athlete called Simone Biles.

Let’s talk about the perfect 10 for a moment. I was just 9 years old when Romania’s Nadia Comaneci scored the first 10 in Olympic gymnastics history, but I remember it. If you are old enough, you remember it too. It was 1976, Montreal. This 14-year-old slip of a girl with ribbons in her hair and the poise of a queen did the same routine on the uneven bar that every other gymnast did – it was the compulsory portion of the competition. But she did her routine with more grace and elegance than anyone else.

The ancient digital scoreboard did not have the bandwidth to display a 10, so instead it showed a 1.00. At first, Comaneci and her coach Bela Karolyi were confused and wondered if she had fouled somehow. Then, as everyone became aware of the perfect score, there was an overwhelming roar and the sport was fundamentally changed. At that very instant, little girls all over the world had a new dream, a bigger dream than before: To go to the Olympics and be perfect like Nadia.

One of those little girls, Mary Lou Retton, would become the first American to win an all-around gymnastics gold medal. And she would inspire a whole bunch more.

Well, these 10s were awe-inspiring. But the trouble with the perfect 10 is, well, where do you go from there? It’s like the line from “This is Spinal Tap” about the band’s all black album cover – “There is something about this, that’s so black, it’s like: ‘How much more black could this be?’ And the answer is: “None. None more black.”

Same thing here: How much more perfect could gymnasts get if they were already getting 10s? And the answer is: None. None more perfect. Once judges started giving out 10s, they could not stop. Comaneci had seven perfect 10s in Montreal. And what is often forgotten is that her rival Nellie Kim had three 10s herself.

In Moscow, four years later, nine gymnasts scored a Perfect 10 (Comaneci had two more). And then, it gets really crazy. In Los Angeles in 1984, there were a staggering FORTY-FOUR perfect 10s – and remember the Soviet bloc countries, who had dominated gymnastics, didn’t even come to Los Angeles. In Seoul four years after that, there were 28 more perfect 10s.

At this point, everyone began to realize that things were getting ridiculous. People were tripping over cracks in the sidewalk in New York and getting perfect 10s. So they more or less shut things down. There were only two perfect 10s given out in 1992 and then there were no more. According to Dvora Meyers’ comprehensive book “The End of the Perfect 10,” the last perfect 10 was achieved by Lavinia Milosovici in the floor exercise. The striking part, as Meyers explains, is that Milosovici’s routine was not a difficult as some of the others. This was a crossroads for gymnastics. A question had to be asked.

Was the sport more interested in:

1. Perfection?

2. Evolution?

Tough one. See, if the ultimate goal of gymnastics is perfection – doing a routine with perfect precision — then there is no great incentive to take chances, to push the boundaries, to try things that could result in bobbles or falls.Comaneci’s first 10, after all, involved only the simplest of moves (and Nadia herself has said her performance was not perfect).

But if the ultimate goal is evolution then you have to give up very notion of perfection because perfection signals an ending, not a beginning. A perfect 10 suggests that a routine cannot ever be topped — all worlds have been conquered.

Gymnastics chose evolution. Ten years ago, they dropped the whole idea of the perfect 10 and instead came up with an exceedingly complicated judging system that unquestionable has created a lot of confusion, some drama and more than a little bit of controversy.

But, if we are criticizing the new system – and mourning the ol’ perfect 10 – we do have to pause and appreciate the extraordinary and unprecedented athleticism now on display in gymnastics. It’s mind-blowing what gymnasts are doing now. This is the direction that the new scoring has taken the sport. And, of course, no one symbolizes this thrilling new age more than three-time world champion Simone Biles.

It goes without saying that Biles finished first in the all-around qualification on Sunday. Her only “competition” – and let’s put quotation marks around that word – came from her U.S. teammates Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas. The United States team is so much better than every other team that if its four best gymnasts – Biles, Raisman, Douglas and Lauren Hernandez – were all allowed to enter the all-around competition, they would likely finish 1 through 4. Alas, countries are limited to two all-around competitors and so Douglas, the defending Olympic champion, will not compete for the all-around gold. She finished third on the team. She also finished third overall in qualifying.

In any case, the Americans are so much better than all the other gymnasts and, to be frank about it, Biles is so much better than her extraordinary teammates. The differences are not subtle. On her floor exercise, just as one example, she leaps a foot or two higher than anyone else in the world. On the balance beam, she seems to be bolted to the beam in a way that no one else can match. She is in every way a new sort of gymnast – faster, stronger, higher.

And this is what the sport now rewards. It prizes groundbreakers. It savors innovation. Every score is built around a start value, which is essentially the degree of difficulty. The harder the routine, the higher the possible score. Biles’ floor exercise is the hardest in the world, the hardest in the history of the world, and so by nailing that routine she scored a staggering 15.733, almost a full point better than any non-American (Raisman with a fantastic routine finished about a half-point behind).

Yes, of course, Biles would have been great in any era. She brings plenty of grace and energy into her routines. If she had been competing in 1984 with Mary Lou or 1976 with Nadia, she would have been very different, but she would undoubtedly have managed to get some perfect 10s. My colleague and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Samantha Peszek said that she has been judged by both systems – in fact, she scored a perfect 10 in college.

“That must have been a thrill getting a perfect 10,” I said.

“Eh,” she replied. She much prefers this current system because this current system challenges gymnasts to challenge themselves.

And with Simone Biles, well, this is the perfect time for her, the perfect era that pushes her, challenges her, continuously asks her: “OK, what ELSE can you do?” Yes, it’s true, Biles’ spectacular 16.050 on the vault Sunday does not have quite the same ring as a perfect 10. But it does something even better. It make you wonder just how much higher she can go.

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