Biles retakes limelight as world records drop, IOC probes Belarus
Simone Biles retook the gymnastics stage on Tuesday after a week’s absence, electrifying the Tokyo Olympics on a day that saw world records smashed and organizers probe Belarus’s treatment of an athlete now in diplomatic protection.
The return of the American, considered by many the greatest gymnast ever, ensured a blockbuster finale for the sport at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre as Biles scored 14.000 on the balance beam to take the bronze.
She had abruptly dropped out of the team event earlier in the Games citing mental health issues and increasing the global spotlight on the pressures elite athletes face.
“I was proud of myself just to go out there after what I’ve been through,” said Biles, who arrived in Tokyo having already won four golds and a bronze in Rio five years ago. “I’ll treasure this one a lot more after everything I have been through.”
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) August 3, 2021
On the track, Norway’s Karsten Warholm shattered his own world record in the men’s 400 metres hurdles final with a blistering 45.94-second run, besting American Rai Benjamin, who also beat last month’s record of 46.70 seconds.
“Man, it’s so crazy. It’s by far the biggest moment of my life,” Warholm said after carving his name among the greats of athletics history and crouching in apparent disbelief on the track. “You know the cliche that it hasn’t sunk in yet? I don’t think it has, but I feel ecstatic.”
In women’s cycling, Germany won the gold medal in team pursuit at the Izu Velodrome, beating Britain in a thrilling final after both teams traded world records in the heats. The United States took the bronze.
Away from competition, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said it expected a report later in the day from the Belarusian team on the case of sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, who sought protection in the Polish embassy in Tokyo on Monday after refusing her team’s orders to fly home.
She was expected to fly on Wednesday to Poland, which has offered her a humanitarian visa. The IOC spoke twice on Monday to Tsimanouskaya, who was in a safe and secure place, spokesman Mark Adams said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime of intolerable “transnational repression” in the matter.
Tsimanouskaya told the German newspaper Bild that her rupture with the team had not initially been about politics. “I could never have imagined that would turn into such a big political scandal.”
Outdoor athletes were once again battling the Tokyo summer weather as well as their competitors, with highs around 33 degrees Celsius (91 Fahrenheit) and rain-forest humidity.
Athletes also lacked the cheers of fans, as organizers have banned spectators from almost all events due to COVID-19, which had already delayed the Games by a year.
The lack of fans, however, is not depressing viewership, the IOC said, as debut events such as surfing and skateboarding attract a global buzz.
Host city Tokyo is enduring its fourth coronavirus state of emergency with infections spiking to record highs and hospitals under increasing strain.
Tokyo Olympics organisers have reported 294 Games-related COVID-19 cases since July 1 even as strict testing and monitoring measures continue inside the Olympic “bubble”.
Positive COVID-19 tests have forced Greece to pull out of the artistic swimming competitions.
Biles, her hopes of winning six gold medals in Tokyo shattered, has been battling the “twisties” – where gymnasts become disoriented during their gravity-defying sequences – which forced her to pull out of events.
Japan’s Naomi Osaka, who had cited depression in taking a break from tennis in recent months, lost to the world No. 42 in the third round last week, one of many surprising results in this year’s Games.
Also making history, the first openly transgender Olympian, New Zealand weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, said she does not consider herself a trailblazer and just wanted to be seen as any other athlete on sport’s biggest stage.
Hubbard made an unexpectedly early exit on Monday, eliminated 10 minutes into her +87 kg contest, ending an appearance that provoked controversy.
Transgender rights advocates applauded her being allowed to compete, while some former athletes and activists believe her background gives her an unfair physiological advantage and undermines efforts for women’s equality in sport.
Meanwhile, some Australian athletes caused damage to their rooms in the athletes’ village before departing while the team’s mascots – an emu and a kangaroo – went missing but have since returned, team chief Ian Chesterman said.
(Reporting by Steve Keating and Mitch Phillips; Additional reporting by Mari Saito, Steve Keating, Elaine Lies, Martin Petty and Karolos Grohmann; Writing by William Mallard; Editng by Lincoln Feast and Himani Sarkar)