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It's easy to see Simone Biles' story as a moral tale - her talent soars above such simplicity

Concentrating on the US gymnast's rags to glory narrative does her artistry a disservice, says Gail Walker

Published 16/08/2016

Simone Biles
Simone Biles

The photographs said it better than the rolling footage, freeze-framing each exquisite moment so that they could be marvelled over at length.

Ironically, perhaps because of their very stillness, they paradoxically embodied movement, grace, power, agility. But regardless of why and how, those images of American gymnast Simone Biles left you breathless, stunned and baffled. In other words, they left the human spirit exhilarated.

Especially awe-inspiring was the photo of the gymnast upside down, legs at - more or less - 180 degrees. Stunning.

But even more remarkable was the look on her face. Calm, composed, concentrated, yes, but perfectly normal - not contorted with effort, adrenaline, or ego. And certainly not fear.

In a position (in the unlikely event that we'd ever contort ourselves into it in the first place) where most of us would think "Oh, oh, I'm going to hurt myself very badly", Biles looked totally natural, totally in her element.

She looked beyond the self-consciousness that plagues more or less all of our waking moments. No doubt, no worry. It was, her face implied, what she was born to do. Nothing more, nothing less.

Indeed, Biles' aura suggests that fear and doubt are, in her case, ridiculous. A bird isn't afraid to fly, or a panther to run. She was made for this.

And, for a brief few minutes, as Biles secured her third gold on Sunday, it made all the darkness surrounding big-time Olympian sport - too much corruption, too much corporate cash, too much turning, or near turning, of blind eyes to performance-enhancing drugs - just fade away into the background.

The triumph of Simone Biles at the Olympics reminded us that sport shades into art, philosophy and even the spiritual. Maybe that's why it was ancient Greeks who "invented" gymnastics - a discipline specifically designed to balance the artistic and the athletic.

Watching Biles' floor routine, it was hard to quash one's inner pseud and not reflect upon Yeats' lines, 'O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?'

How indeed? It was the unity that gave us a glimpse into something beyond the everyday and the banal - unity of body and idea, thought and execution. In that sense, Biles showed us an almost spiritual plane.

Of course, getting to that level involves a formidable amount of work - practice, determination, self-discipline. As the story of every wayward genius who never quite fulfilled their potential proves, inspiration without perspiration is nothing. Brilliance needs effort - usually hidden from the public view - to shine.

That is why it is all so astonishing. Humbling even. Here is a 19-year-old girl who stands a mere 4ft 8ins tall and whose background is of the most troubled of circumstances. Yet she is teaching - no, not teaching - showing (after all, how can you teach that type of talent) the world a kind of perfection in a fashion not dissimilar to Nijinsky, Bach, or Michaelangelo.

Simone Biles never knew her father; he had abandoned his family years earlier. As it turned out, she barely knew her mother Shannon either. Due to her drink and drug addiction, she had been unable to cope with four young children, so Simone was fostered.

Eventually, she was adopted by her maternal grandfather Ron Biles and his second wife Nellie. Ron, a retired air traffic controller, and Nellie, a nurse, had been looking forward to retiring - not to raising their daughter's children. But, at the end of the day, family is family and they did the right thing.

Speaking of their adoption of Simone and her younger sister Adria, Ron Biles said: "We took them in as family because they were family. And just gave them what we had: that's love and encouragement."

Simone's two older siblings went to live with Mr Biles' sister.

Although this is all very heartwarming and an object lesson of the power of love, concentrating solely on the rags-to-glory story does Simone a kind of injustice, making her into a simple story, a moral, some sort of cheesy lesson that we should never give up on our dreams, that our beginnings are not our ends, that we can all win our personal gold medals.

For Biles threatens - like all great art/artists - to stand outside such simplicities. She - and what she does - simply is. It is beauty and the only thing the spectator can do is marvel and wonder.

True, Biles' tiny physique seems more built for power than grace and gymnastics seems to have abandoned the more fragile frames of Olga Korbut, Ludmilla Tourischeva and Nadia Comaneci, who first brought the sport to modern consciousness 40 years ago.

But Biles retains their artistry, their grace, their desire for perfection almost beyond words.

I am not a wide-eyed romantic. Simone Biles will soon be touched by the world. Already she is featuring in Nike commercials. Videos, "autobiographies", diet programmes and the usual tacky detritus of modern celebrity are probably all on the horizon.

And those behind the soon-to-be Biles industry - the ad men, the corporate moguls, the financiers - will be absolutely wrong in their vision. In fact, it will be based on a lie - that you can tell the difference between the dancer and the dance.

The falsehood will have two prongs: you, too, can be like Simone Biles (no, we can't) and Simone Biles: The Face of Today, The Face of a New Generation.

Rightfully, she should be a representative of no one but herself and her own genius.

Face of Today? What Biles has achieved at the Rio Olympic arena stands almost outside of time.

And that's a kind of immortality.

Follow me on Twitter @GWalker9

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