THE summer of 1996 must have not have been a scorcher, because my memories of the school holidays are dominated by one thing – or more specifically, seven people. The US women’s gymnastics team, dubbed the “Magnificent Seven”, were tipped for Olympic glory, and I was glued to the TV watching Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and the others vault, balance, flip and tumble to the delight of a home crowd in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was transfixed by the glamour and poise of the older girls, but my favourite was the smiley wee Dominique Moceanu, who at 4’6” was a head shorter than her tallest teammate and at just 14 – the same age as me – by far the youngest.

In the end, though, it was Kerri Strug who produced the most memorable 12 seconds of the competition, and possibly of the entire Games. Under pressure on vault after Moceanu had failed to land on her feet during either attempt, she under-rotated in much the same way and fell backwards onto the mat. When she stood up, she was limping.

At this point in the competition the Russian team had one gymnast left to perform a floor routine, meaning a US victory would not be assured unless Strug completed a second, more successful vault, meaning the score for her first would be disregarded.

Talk about pressure.

Strug shook out her leg as she walked back to the starting point. Coach Béla Károlyi was shouting “You can do it! You can do it!” from the sidelines.

And then she did it.

She landed on her feet, and managed to salute the judges while standing on one leg before folding onto the mat in agony, having torn ligaments in her ankle. She was ruled out of the rest of the Olympic competitions, but overnight became a national hero. Károlyi, who carried a bandaged Strug to the podium, said: “People think these girls are fragile dolls. They’re not. They’re courageous.”

How times have changed.

Simone Biles had not yet been born when all this was happening. It was gymnastics history by the time she made her elite debut, having gone down as a watershed moment when Russian domination of the team competition came to an end.

This week Strug was among athletes from around the world to send love to Biles after her shock exit from the team and all-around Olympic finals. The greatest gymnast of all time told a press conference that she was putting her mental health first, having had “a little bit of the twisties” while vaulting.

That description might not sound too serious to those with no experience of elite gymnastics, who might imagine it refers to nerves, or butterflies in the tummy. It doesn’t. It refers to a gymnast losing their spatial awareness while twisting in mid-air, making it extremely difficult for them to land safely. This is not “having a wobble”, it’s about potentially breaking your neck.

Watching back clips from 1996 now, those glory days don’t seem quite so glorious. Adding her voice of support to Biles, Moceanu shared a clip of her horrendous head-first fall onto the beam, after which she not only completed her routine but, incredibly, minutes later went on to perform on the floor, narrowly missing out on a bronze medal. She drew attention to the difference in attitudes between Biles’s coach Cecile Canqueteau-Landi and her own coach Márta Károlyi.

The Károlyis, a Romanian-American husband and wife team, have been coaching US gymnasts since the 1980, with each taking a turn in the role of head coach of the women’s team. They may have turned around the nation’s gymnastic fortunes, but at what cost?

In 2008 Moceanu spoke out against the pair’s methods, accusing them of physical and verbal abuse and saying: “I’m sure Béla saw injuries, but if you were injured, Béla didn’t want to see it ... You had to deal with it. I was intimidated. He looked down on me. He was six-feet something, and I was four-foot nothing.”

Speaking out to allege abuse probably wasn’t the sort of “courage” Károlyi had had in mind when he was praising Strug for risking life and limb on the vault. Depressingly, Moceanu says she was vilified for speaking out and blacklisted by the gymnastics community as a consequence.

Seven years later, it emerged that USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar had for years been grooming and sexually assaulting gymnasts, including Biles, with some claiming the “emotionally abusive environment” at the Károlyi training camps was easy for a manipulative predator to exploit.

There is a big difference between courage and coercion. It takes great courage to compete in gymnastics at elite level and incredible talent to make it look easy. It also takes huge strength to walk away from a dream.

Biles has totally transformed her sport, and had nothing left to prove at these Olympics. But by trusting her gut and withdrawing, knowing the scrutiny she would face, she has helped shift the definition of sporting courage. What a legacy.