If we approach this from a place of patience and empathy, let’s leave the 15-year-old out of it. Russian skater Kamila Valieva likely had so little to do with the events that put her at the center of the latest Russian Olympic doping saga that it feels like piling on to put this on her. Well, at least solely on her.
Still, the sad truth of the sordid tale that has swallowed all of the Olympic headlines from Beijing is that there might be only one human who will pay a public and painful price for the December drug test that revealed traces of the banned heart medication trimetazidine in Valieva’s system. That’s Valieva, who could be banned from Tuesday’s women’s free skate, who will be tainted forever even if she manages to skate and win the gold medal for which she is the prohibitive favorite.
Either way, she loses.
So if we approach this from a place of practicality and logic, then let’s point the slings and arrows of our understandable outrage where they truly belong. We’re looking at you, Russia.
And even more, we’re looking at you, International Olympic Committee, you toothless, spineless international governing body that continues to betray everything you are supposed to represent. Of all the offending alphabet soup agencies that routinely subject us to their varying degrees of corruption and ineptitude — think NCAA, FIFA, NFL — the IOC is the worst, serially unmasked for putting profits ahead of propriety, for running a fiefdom ahead of working for fairness.
Why do we say this now? Because if the IOC had had the guts to deal with Russia properly after their brazen, state-sponsored doping scheme to ensure medal count dominance at the 2014 Sochi Games, if the IOC didn’t continually allow Russia to (ahem) skate from real consequence for actions that are so far beyond the sort of individual mistakes that snare cheating athletes from all over the world, perhaps Russia wouldn’t feel so emboldened to continue ignoring the rules.
Stripping them of their national name and logos for two straight Olympics, but allowing their athletes to compete under ridiculous fake names like the Olympic Athletes of Russia (2018 in PyeongChang) or Russian Olympic Committee (currently in Beijing)? No tangible effect there at all, especially when this year’s flouting of the punishment included a Russian flag on the team uniforms and when the leader of it all, Vladimir Putin, sat grinning and clapping through the Opening Ceremony. They were not scared straight. They did not learn any lesson. Because they didn’t want to, fully confident that the IOC needs them more than they need the IOC.
Think of the current American sports news cycle that took over Super Bowl week: Stubborn NFL owners, unwilling to be told what to do in their hiring practices, made a mockery of the Rooney Rule, using it not as motivation to hire more diverse coaching staffs, but as inspiration to find new and sinister ways to skirt the rule. The details may differ of course, with private business versus state-sponsored action, but the response is painfully similar nonetheless. We do what we want, rules be damned.
Of course there are plenty of villains in this story. Consider the lab that tested the sample taken when the Russians held their national championship, which Valieva won to qualify for the Olympic team. It was sent to a World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) lab in Sweden, which for some inexplicable reason did not report its result until after Valieva and her historic quadruple jumps skated so beautifully in the Olympic team competition, helping Russia take gold. The medal ceremony for that event remains in limbo, and will for a while even after Valieva’s case is adjudicated. But the timing of it all just stinks — as in smells, to high heaven.
“For sure somebody screwed up on how long it took to get the test results. Honestly, there is no excuse for this coming out in the middle of the Olympics,” says Howard Jacobs, a California-based lawyer who founded his firm to give national and international athletes representation in cases such as these. “Whoever organized that testing [in December] knew they had samples from a lot of people competing in the Olympics. It’s simple to expedite the test results. That for sure should have been done. I read where they were trying to blame it on the Sweden lab, on a COVID outbreak. Even if that is true, it seems impossible to believe that nobody knew about that until now.
“If ITA organized these tests, they presumably would have asked for the test results to be expedited and presumably the Swedish lab would have responded between Dec. 26 and Feb. 7 and said, ‘We’re delayed with a COVID outbreak, we’re not going to be able to expedite,’ and they should have transferred it to another lab. There are WADA labs all over Europe. They should have had this by early January. They would have had a month to resolve it, and if she was suspended, whenever would have competed. This is not fair to the Russians; it’s certainly not fair to everyone else. That, to me, should not have happened. There is no good explanation for how that test result is first being reported now.”
That it is happening now is the reason Valieva’s life will never be the same. Russia is well known for its doping schemes. It’s also known for churning out so many young female skaters there is no guarantee Valieva will get another chance to represent them in the Olympics. Between burnout and turnover, this could be her one shot. Whether she skates or not, her world, her reputation, her life has been forever changed. And not for the better.
“It’s the athletes who are always held to the highest standard,” Jacobs said. “The rules are super strict, and strictly applied to athletes. Whoever screwed up on not expediting this test, nothing is going to happen to them.”
The odds are nothing is going to happen to Russia either. The IOC doesn’t have the guts.