The man who tamed the triple double


Simone Biles’s casual video drop of two stellar new tumbling passes Tuesday casts the spotlight on one of the hardest skills done in gymnastics: the triple twisting double back.

Up to now, the triple double has gotten short shrift in women’s gymnastics. Unlike some other triple things -- hi there, triple twisting Yurchenko! -- the gymworld hasn’t held its collective breath to see who would be the first to perform one. It was always kind of assumed that someone would get around to it at some point, and that that someone turns out to be Biles, the greatest gymnast of all time, is really no surprise at all.

Still, to look at the thing is just spectacular. Biles’s special ability is in the fact that she makes it look easy -- so easy that at first glance it looks like a double twisting double, which the 22-year-old Texan already does to great effect at the end of her floor routine. (And most gymnasts, if they do a double double at all, do it at the beginning of the routine.)

The triple double has been competed by several men, but the pioneer was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s Ri Jong Song, who debuted it at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The element is actually named the Ri Jong Song in the men’s code of points, though unfortunately for him, triple-double is a catchier term.

Ri’s whole routine is worth revisiting. In addition to opening with the skill that has come to bear his name, he ends with a terrific double twisting double layout, which is what most of the top contenders begin with even today. In addition to the difficulty of the tumbling, this is a thoughtfully presented routine -- it has a rather unique double-twisting Shushunova and a roundoff, windmill that evokes the great Chinese gymnasts of an earlier era.

Although certain form deductions (see handstand, press) assured that this routine would not contend for a medal, it stands out as being an exercise ahead of its time. As such, it deserves to be celebrated. Ri Jong Song continued on following the Athens Olympics, notably placing fourth on vault at the 2007 World Championships (where he showed a Tsuk triple and a Randi). But it was another man named Ri -- 2016 Olympic vault champion-to-be Ri Se Gwang, who shocked the world with his extraordinary capacity for adding extra twists to already extremely complex vaults — who we remember more today.