American gymnastics superstar Simone Biles got off to a shaky start in her quest for five gold medals and Olympic history in Tokyo on Sunday, as an Uzbeki mother-of-one bid a poignant farewell after a remarkable career spanning eight Games.
At 46 years old, Oksana Chusovitina, gold medallist at her debut Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, has earned the right to occupy her time in more sedate ways than exploding up a 25 metre runway and somersaulting backwards over a vault against competitors younger than her son.
Among those rivals is Biles, who kept the wheels on her bid to level Soviet great Larisa Latynina’s record of nine gymnastics gold medals, but her qualifying performances were peppered with rare imperfections.
On the floor, Biles over-rotated after one series of mesmerising tumbles and went off the mat, drawing a gasp from at least one onlooker in the near-deserted Ariake Centre.
She rolled her eyes after another unsteady landing over on the vault, and her performance director Tom Forster expressed disbelief after an untidy end to her beam routine.
“Simone took three big steps on the beam dismount, I’ve never seen her do that before,” said Forster.
Biles qualified top in the all-around and vault, and was second on the floor, with the USA occupying the same position behind the Russians for Tuesday’s team final.
But in the beam standings she paid for her flawed ending to lie sixth of the eight progressing.
Biles also booked a place for the uneven bars final, though, which the 19-time world champion missed at Rio 2016, as the eighth qualifier.
While there were many moments of dazzling Biles brilliance, Forster was thankful this was only qualifying.
“We’re going to be okay… this is not the finals, this is getting into the finals, this might be a great awakening for us,” he said.
He said there was work to do. “Mostly fixing steps on the floor. Staying in bounds would help,” he added, putting the lapses down to “nerves”.
Biles later chose to focus on the USA’s team title defence rather than any personal ambitions of adding to all the precious metal on her sideboard.
“I feel we did a pretty good job. Obviously there are little things we need to work on, so we’ll go back and practise and work on that, just so we can do our best performance at team finals, because that’s what matters.”
One gold medallist from Rio out of luck on Sunday was Sanne Wevers.
‘Tears of happiness’
The Dutch beam outgoing champion had to wait 13 minutes for the judges to announce her score but when they did it sent her not to the final, but to the airport.
“They’ve just told me I will be on the plane home tomorrow. So, my short-term future is just about packing my bags and going home,” she said, adding that she had reached the same assessment of her routine as the judges “in a lot less time!”.
Another gold medallist, but from much further back than Rio, departing Tokyo was the evergreen Chusovitina.
She received a hugely affectionate ovation from her team, rivals, media and photographers when she narrowly failed to qualify for the vault at her eighth and last Olympics.
Born in 1976, Chusovitina’s Olympic odyssey began in Barcelona in 1992, where she won team gold, adding silver in the vault in Beijing 2008.
“We thank her for her contributions to artistic gymnastics,” the stadium announcer said as teams, officials and journalists applauded.
She said later she had been crying “tears of happiness, because so many people have supported me for such a long time.
“I’m just so grateful.”
Monday sees the first gymnastics title on offer with the men’s team final.