Day five of the Tokyo Olympics saw upsets for two of the most celebrated female athletes competing: Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.
The United States finished the gymnastic all-around finals with a silver medal and without Ms. Biles, who withdrew with what USA Gymnastics called a “medical issue” following vault earlier in the competition. On the tennis court, Ms. Osaka lost unexpectedly to opponent Marketa Vondrousova, taking her out of gold medal contention.
Despite the setbacks, the impact the two have had on viewers and on representation in their respective sports remains.
There’s a phenomenon that happens every time Ms. Biles appears on a screen inside Power Moves Gymnastics & Fitness.
As if flipping a switch, the young women of color on the gym’s competitive team spring to life, fueled by the jolt of adrenaline that comes with watching the reigning Olympic champion test the limits of their sport.
“They just get this motivation that’s just unreal,” said DeLissa Walker, who co-owns the gym just outside New York City with her sister Candice. “And we’re like, ‘Wow, they’re really inspired.’ ... They’re like ‘This can be me.’”
Maybe because more and more, it is.
The face of gymnastics in the U.S. is changing. There are more athletes of color starting – and sticking – in a sport long dominated by white athletes at the highest levels.
Half of the U.S. women’s Olympic delegation that walked onto the floor – Ms. Biles, Jordan Chiles, and Sunisa Lee – at Ariake Gymnastics Center for Olympic qualifying were minorities. Ms. Biles and Ms. Chiles are African American; Ms. Lee is Hmong American.
More than half of the 18 women invited to Olympic trials in St. Louis last month were women of color. While numbers are still low on college teams, there is progress. Black women account for nearly 10% of the scholarship athletes at the NCAA Division I level, an increase from 7% in 2012. More than 10% of USA Gymnastics membership self-identify as Black.
And while the current athletes at the top level of the sport were already involved when Gabby Douglas became the first Black woman to win the Olympic all-around title in London in 2012, the rise in participation among athletes of color since Ms. Douglas’ golden moment at the 02 Dome is real, and has been amplified by Ms. Biles’ unmatched brilliance.
“Simone has opened the eyes to so many women of color saying ‘Hey, you can do this, too,’” said Cecile Landi, who has served as Ms. Biles’ co-coach along with her husband since the fall of 2017. “It’s not just little skinny white girls that can do it. Anyone can do it.”
Ms. Biles has vowed to remain in the sport long after the Olympic flame in Tokyo is passed along to organizers for the 2024 Games in Paris. Three years from now, perhaps some of the young Black girls who entered the sport in the afterglow of Ms. Douglas’ victory in London will be the ones in the mix to represent the U.S. in France or scattered across NCAA gymnastics programs across the country, maybe even at historically Black colleges and universities.
“Representation does matter,” Gina Chiles said. “And Simone has put her foot in it. She’s definitely set that path in a lot of ways. Whatever level you go to, you can be excellent at that level. And a lot of Black girls see that. And a lot of Black girls now want to be that.”
While Naomi Osaka’s early loss on the Olympic court was similarly disappointing to fans, people quickly turned to an outpouring of sympathy and remain hopeful.
“Watching you gave me courage. You don’t have to win a medal. Watching you play is enough for all your fans,” said Yuji Taida, a novelist.
For many in Tokyo, the Japan-born Osaka, whose father is Haitian, has grown to personify a ray of hope for diversity in a nation long linked with discrimination and intolerance for differences.
Shotaro Akiyama, a university student who loves to play tennis, said he hoped Ms. Osaka wouldn’t give up.
“The opponent just played a smarter game this time,” he said. “She will have another chance at the gold.”
This story was reported by The Associated Press.