The contrast was striking, the differences between them standing out far more than their similarities. On one side were the US gymnasts: loud, jovial, apparently relaxed, a cross between a group of sorority girls preparing for a night out and a cluster of cheerleaders focusing ahead of their final routine.
Just down from them, in the blue and white leotards of the Russian Olympic Committee (not, under any circumstances, to be confused with Russia) stood their opponents. They were reserved, serious, speaking quietly with none of the ra-ra let’s-goooo hype that their opponents favoured.
Whatever quiet tension remained in those moments was soon broken by a loud voice shouting down from above, that of Hoda Kotb, the gymnastics anchor on US broadcaster NBC.
“I love you, Simone,” she bellowed, blowing kisses. “I love you. I love you.”
Biles looked up, as did her teammates, and made heart gestures back.
Kotb stood on her platform and looked at the faces around who, like me, were wondering what exactly a journalist was doing telling a world-class athlete she loved them multiple times during an Olympic final.
“You don’t love Simone Biles?” she shouted. “Come onnn,” she added, rallying her hands in circles to drum up a polite cheer for the greatest gymnast of all time.
It seems when you work for a broadcaster that spends a billion dollars for the rights to broadcast each Games, you may do as you please during the biggest moments of these young gymnasts’ careers – decorum be damned.
But on another level, Kotb’s strange wherefore-art-thou love letter to Biles was fully understandable. By that stage the script of the women’s team all around had been torn to shreds, Biles reduced to a sidelined spectator for reasons we didn’t yet know, for reasons we may never truly know.
It was hard not to feel a huge swell of sympathy for the 24-year-old American, standing idly by in her white US tracksuit and watching the gold medal slip from her nation’s grasp, a gold medal they had been expected – demanded – to deliver.
But the Biles that showed up to the Ariake Gymnastics Centre was an impostor of her previous, peerless self. In her first rotation, she attempted her favoured Amanar vault which is to her what tying laces is to you or me – an act so well-rehearsed it could be done on muscle memory.
But something in the gymnastics software Biles has programmed into her system began to glitch, and she only managed one and a half twists before an off-kilter landing. Her score, 13.700, signaled something seriously amiss.
She was soon in crisis talks with US coaches, then taken to a back room, revealing soon after that she would play no further part in the competition. If the US was to win, they’d have to outperform Russia – sorry, the Russian Olympic Committee – with three first-time Olympians and without their leader.
Biles was there alright, refusing to let what issues were gnawing away at her dampen the mood among her teammates. She was the most vocal supporter as Jordan Chiles stepped into her void and nailed an impressive 14.166 on the uneven bars.
But then along came Angelina Melnikova from the artistic gymnasts formerly known as Russia, racking up a 14.933 score to keep her non-nation out in front. There was further disaster for the US on the beam, with Chiles going out of bounds on a full-twisting double layout (admission: I had to Google this) and scoring 11.700.
By the time Melnikova, not-Russia’s star performer, stepped up for her floor routine, it was clear which way the gold was headed. The 21-year-old didn’t put a foot wrong, her 13.966 score giving still-not-Russia a comfortable win.
Biles hugged her teammates, looking morose. Melnikova held her face in her hands, then broke down in tears. The steely facade was gone, the visceral weight of a nation’s expectation clear to see, just as it had been on Biles.
Minutes later, Biles found herself deep in conversation with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee. You’d have paid good money to listen in, wondering what she would say during one of her toughest moments.
The gymnasts lined up for the medal presentation, then watched as the Olympic flag was raised above the stars-and-stripes and Union Jack, with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 playing in place of the Russian anthem. A cracking substitute, it has to be said.
Shortly before that, the two sets of rival gymnasts had come together for the first time all evening. Many of them were still in tears at that point – both joy and sorrow – as they traded hugs, kissed each other’s cheeks, and exchanged a few words.
Both knew exactly what the other was going through. They’d walked the very same road to be here, just in a slightly different manner. They weren’t so different at all.