What a farce the International Olympic Committee has made of the Games this year. By not installing real sanctions against Russia for institutionalizing a surreptitious doping program in Sochi, and by not barring an athlete who tested positive for a banned substance, we were witness to the oddest of Olympic spectacles Thursday.
There was 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the next-level skater at the center of a controversy after having three different heart medications in her test sample, breaking down in tears after finishing out of the medals in the free skate competition after finishing first in the women’s short program. Her failure to medal in free skate was the only reason the event could have a medal ceremony during the games after the Court of Arbitration ruled that Valieva could compete anyway due to her age and the irreparable harm that would be caused if she didn’t skate.
As for the irreparable harm the Court was trying to avoid, that ship has sailed. It was clear from the look on Valieva’s face that this teenager will never be the same.
Even IOC president Thomas Bach commented on how frosty the Russian entourage was to Valieva after she went from favored to fourth in the free skate.
“Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance,” Bach said.
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The skating community has been outraged by the events. Because even though the rules to ensure clean competition can be cumbersome, every other skater complied with them and didn’t have a positive test.
Here’s a good explainer from ABC about how we got here.
From ESPN’s report on the test: “Valieva has claimed the trimetazidine entered her system accidentally. But the World Anti-Doping Agency filed a brief stating that two other substances she acknowledged taking, L-carnitine and Hypoxen — though both legal — undercut the argument that a banned substance could have been ingested in error.”
If the IOC really wants to avoid irreparable harm to young skaters like Valieva, it has to completely eradicate the incentive for federations and athletes to dope. It is very simple. Letting an individual like Valieva continue to skate actually puts other young athletes at risk.
But there is a bigger issue at hand, and that’s how the IOC deals with nations that continually test the fences on doping rules, or have shoddy records on human rights.
Russia, which happens to be conducting military exercises on the borders of Ukraine, has a history of line-stepping when it comes to fair competition. Rather than take a hard-line approach when the nation was swapping dirty urine samples for clean ones in Sochi, the IOC “banned” Russia but allowed Russian athletes to compete under the name the Russian Olympic Committee. What’s the difference between Russia and the Russian Olympic Committee? Apparently not enough to keep 15 year olds from testing positive for banned heart medications.
But this is all part of a larger problem. The IOC can only persuade so many liberal democracies to host the Olympics these days. Instead, you have more authoritarian nations like Russia and China who can use the game to play to the international audience, but also as a show of strength to its own citizens. Nothing is a display of power like having the detained tennis player Peng Shuai in the stands to recant her sexual abuse claim against a Chinese official.
There is no keeping politics out of the Olympics. The Olympics were founded on politics, to spread international cooperation and the concept of fair play and mutual understanding. But when anti-doping rules don’t apply uniformly, and when potential human-rights abuses are overlooked in the name of ignoring politics, then we are deviating from the purpose the Olympics have so beautifully attempted to serve.
It wasn’t so long ago that Olympic athletes were expected to be amateurs, and that professionals in the major American sports were excluded from play for that reason
The system of amateurism is classist and exclusionary of course, but there is a middle ground between that and doing business with authoritarian-leaning regimes because they present the highest bid.
Plenty of liberal democracies cannot justify the expense of building the infrastructure required to host a one-time event. A look at the costs of an Olympics reveals that the 2016 Rio Olympics cost $11.1 billion, and lost $2 billion for Brazil. So the question is, what is a nation getting for that money?
When the answer is a display of power and authority that works for external and internal audiences, $2 billion may seem quite reasonable.
Young skaters are just pawns in the larger Games.