There are times when an athlete feels less like an athlete and more like a fixed point in existence – think of visiting the Great Wall of China, or the Grand Canyon. After a while, they stop being extraordinary. They just feel inevitable.
When an athlete transcends into the pantheon of inevitability, they take on the same quality as those aforementioned tourist destinations – you have to see them before you die, even if it’s only once. Simone Biles; Katie Ledecky – they are Bucket List performers.
A telling indicator of an athlete’s greatness is when their very name is engraved onto their sport: the Fosbury Flop; the Cruyff turn; the “Makalele” role. In Simone Biles’s floor routine, she executes a pass now known as “The Biles”. And with good reason. She’s the only person on this planet who can perform it. In a superb New York Times piece, they decode the mechanics of the move – yet it still seems fantastical that a human being is capable of such dexterity.
In my list of the top PoC sporting moments of 2015, I put Biles at No 6. Her displays in Rio compel me to place her higher next time. She makes her routines look easy, partly due to the childlike joy she radiates when performing. A canister of boundless energy, she’s a perfect synthesis of poise and explosiveness.
Last Tuesday, she scored highest on every discipline that she competed in as the USA retained their Olympic title in the team all-around event. Then in last night’s individual all-around competition, she followed in the pathway of Gabby Douglas, winning the gold by her largest ever margin.
Gymnastics is one of those sports that can confound and astound in equal measure. It requires maintaining physical control while in a constant battle against gravity. To hurl oneself through the air, while contorting your body in a number of complex combinations, at dizzying speed, and to do all this without making any mistakes.
A lot of the sports we’ve seen at the Olympics are ones that most of us can do, albeit with a great deal less skill. Going for a run; riding a bike; or a game of table tennis. That sounds manageable. But can you envisage doing even a single backflip?
A competent gymnast is something to leave us in awe. But there’s no superlative sufficient for Biles. Just as there’s no superlative sufficient for Ledecky. Awesome? Outstanding? Incredible? Unbelievable? These words are not only inadequate descriptors, they’re also incorrect. Because what Biles and Ledecky do looks so… well, almost routine; quotidian; inevitable.
Katie Ledecky burst onto my consciousness at London 2012. Aged only 15, she competed in the 800 metre freestyle final. The stage was set, but not for Ledecky. In her home Games, Britain’s Rebecca Adlington was favoured to retain the title she won four years previously in Beijing.
Ledecky began the race as an unknown. She didn’t end it like that, playing the unwitting villain by not only beating Adlington – and the rest of the field – but obliterating her. Shock and awe in a swimming pool. The notion of Ledecky as a pro-wrestling heel was completed by this race taking on the design of a “loser leaves town” match, as Adlington never raced again.
Not for the first time, Brian Phillips was ahead of the thinkpiece curve on Ledecky, writing arguably the definitive ode to her two years ago. Ledecky doesn’t just win races, she treats her opposition as an afterthought. Not in an overtly rude or dismissive way; it’s just a natural by-product of being so much better than your fellow athletes.
This is a woman that’s lapped her opposition to win major international titles. Just think about that. How do you lap someone in a swimming pool?
In Rio, she won gold in the 400 metre freestyle last Sunday by such a chasm that she was celebrating before the 2nd placed swimmer had even finished.
But that’s not the race I want to focus on. If you want the clearest revelation of Ledecky as a swimmer, watch her display in the 200 metre freestyle last Tuesday. It’s important to understand that she is nominally a long distance swimmer (800 or 1500 metres). To race at 200 metres took Ledecky out of her comfort zone, and thus, she was playing with house money. A loss in the 200 wouldn’t diminish her legacy, but a victory would hugely enshrine it.
She was up against the favourite, and world record holder from Sweden, Sarah Sjöström, but any chance of Ledecky being intimidated and swimming cautiously was immediately put to rest, as she executed her familiar strategy; take the lead from the start, and keep it.
To try this on a swimmer the calibre of Sjöström was audacious. It was less an attempt to control the race, and more a gauntlet across the face of the Swede. This was the opening band at a festival who played their hearts out and got a rousing ovation, before strutting to the back, walking right up to the headliner, and saying, “Follow that.” The only thing that followed was the inevitable.
Biles and Ledecky don’t only dominate their sports, they stretch the limits of what was thought possible to such an extent that the notion of limits has been rendered obsolete. They haven’t smashed the glass ceiling. They’ve forced it upwards to such a vertiginous height that you can’t even see it anymore.
They have embedded themselves not just into the consciousness of their peers, not just in the memory of the watching audience, but also in the very fabric of their respective sports. This isn’t athleticism as brilliance. It’s athleticism as permanence.
Consider the monument that is Mount Everest. Despite all the meteorological elements thrown at it, no matter how many people hack away at its edifice to try and scale to its summit, it remains ever-present; unshakeable; immovable. That’s what an inevitable athlete is like.
Once you’ve taken away all the external factors: TV coverage; media hype; the thousands of tweets; the analysis; the thinkpieces; and rival athletes, all that’s left is Simone Biles. All that’s left is Katie Ledecky. All that’s left is inevitability.
 – In the midst of the plaudits Simone is deservedly receiving, it’s important we don’t forget Gabby’s role in all of this.
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“Two Weeks Notice” is Shane Thomas’s bi-monthly column encompassing “Pop culture to sport, and back again“ Shortlisted for EI Arts, Culture and Entertainment commentator of the year 2015
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.