The word from USA Gymnastics was that nothing could stop Simone Biles returning to the Ariake Centre to energise her fellow Americans.
Throughout a two-hour Olympic all-around final, where she had chosen not to defend the title she had won by clear blue water in 2016, we discovered why.
Even in off-duty mode, hers was still the loudest voice in the room, as she lived through every twist, somersault and handspring of compatriot Sunisa Lee's victory of nerve-shredding tension over Brazil's Rebeca Andrade. After a torrid 48 hours, in which the former champion had found her withdrawal on mental health grounds dissected in ghoulish detail, it was a relief to discover that she retained her unadulterated love of her craft.
Nobody, so the maxim goes, should be bigger than the sport. But the torrent of polemics on Biles' decision to prioritise self-preservation above public gratification suggests that this is naïve. For two days, her state of mind has been picked apart the world over. We came to Tokyo certain that she would produce some indelible feat: a Yurchenko double pike on the vault, perhaps, or a physics-defying triple-double – a skill beyond the reach of most men – as part of her floor routine. Instead, she did something equally iconic.
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Conscious that she was struggling desperately with her billing as the face of these Games, she simply walked away.
Biles is the last person who would seek to detract from Lee's performance to seize gold. As the 18-year-old gave a dazzling turn on uneven bars in front of her, she was the most vocal cheerleader in the arena. There was much to celebrate in the teenager's flourishing on such a stage. Lee has shouldered her own share of hardships during her youth: her father, John, was paralysed from the chest down after falling out of a tree in 2019, while two of her relatives have died from Covid. Born to parents who emigrated from Laos to Minnesota when they were children, she is also the first Hmong American even to compete at the Olympics.
For a young woman who had once thought about quitting gymnastics due to a fraught recovery from a broken foot, this was a startling coming of age. But even as she thanked her family, her coaches, her doctors, Lee was worldly enough to know that this victory owed much to one woman not on the start list. Biles had taken gold in Rio with a combined score of 62.366. This time, Lee's total of 57.433 was sufficient to claim the ultimate prize, a reflection not just of a tightening of judging standards since 2016 but of the reality that, with Biles in the field, everybody else was aspiring to silver at best.
To a watching world, the queen bee's exit to protect herself psychologically marked a lost chance to savour a sporting marvel. For Lee, though, it was a case of adversity yielding opportunity.
"I had to switch gears, because before this I knew that we were coming here to compete for second place," she said. "The whole season, I had been second to her. But I didn't let it get in my head, otherwise I knew I would do really badly. I knew I had to hit the best routines of my life."
Lee's triumph extended American dominance of the all-around competition for a fifth straight Olympics. She joins Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and, of course, Biles in combining the slickest artistry with supreme versatility. Nobody was more gracious about accepting this outcome than the woman dethroned. "It means a lot to have Simone cheering for me," Lee reflected. "Just to have her here was very helpful – she is an inspiration to me."
Ultimately, she needed all the solidarity she could muster. Andrade had seemed the most likely candidate for gold, having trailed Biles most closely in qualifying, and needed only a relatively modest score on floor, her final rotation, to prevail. But when the Brazilian sabotaged her spectacular flourishes by stepping out twice, her fate was sealed. Lee, her eyes moistening above her mask, took one glance at the scoreboard and knew she was the champion.
Britain's extraordinary Gavrilova twins also had cause for jubilation, with Jessica's closing vault sealing the nation's first all-around top-10 finish in Olympic history, and Jennifer finishing 13th. For a watching Biles, the picture was more ambivalent. On the one hand, she had willingly given up an invitation to match Vera Caslavska by becoming the first woman to retain this title since 1968. But on the other, she had gained, in her view, a reward far more precious. "The outpouring of love and support I've received has made me realise that I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before," she wrote.
There are increasing noises from the US camp that Biles will still participate in the beam and bars finals, but pass on vault and floor out of concern over "twisting", where gymnasts' rhythm and spatial awareness are impaired. Her approach, she insists, remains "day by day". But this day, as she would readily concede, deserved to be Lee's alone.