There are multiple reasons why International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said he was “very disturbed” while watching the women’s single skating competition on television Thursday — and all are related to the situation involving 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva.
In a news conference Friday, Bach first pointed out the amount of pressure Valieva faced heading into the free skate portion of the competition. Not only was she considered a heavy favorite, but she also was dealing with the aftermath of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to allow her to compete in the event despite a failed drug test taken in the months leading up to the 2022 Winter Games.
CAS ruled Valieva could continue to skate in Beijing, while many in the figure skating community argued she shouldn’t be allowed to take the ice because of her positive test result.
Valieva performed well in the short program portion of the individual competition, scoring an 82.16 to put her in first place. But the free skate portion did not go nearly as well. Valieva stumbled multiple times during her routine and looked distraught on the sidelines of the rink. She earned a score of 141.93, which placed her outside of the podium for a (provisional) medal.
“This pressure is beyond my imagination, in particular, for a girl 15 years old,” Bach said. “Seeing her struggle on the ice, seeing how she tries to compose herself again, and how then she tries to finish her program, in her body movement and body language, you could feel this is immense mental stress and that maybe she would have preferred just to leave the ice.”
What Bach found more disturbing, however, was the response of Valieva’s “closest entourage.” Though he did not name any specific individuals or titles, he said Valieva’s camp displayed “tremendous coldness” in the moments following her free skate.
“It was chilling,” he said. “Rather than giving her comfort, rather than trying to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere. This distance. If you were interpreting the body language of them, it got even worse because there were dismissive gestures.”
Their behavior didn’t instill much confidence in Bach, in regard to how the situation will be addressed moving forward. While the CAS deemed Valieva eligible to compete in Beijing, the IOC has yet to officially resolve her doping case.
Bach said launching an investigation into the entourage’s role in the case is “of extreme importance,” though he acknowledged the IOC has “extremely limited means” to address the situation and will require the support of the government. He hopes appropriate disciplinary measures will be taken for all those responsible.
“It’s a minor,” he said. “Over the years, having had to listen to many lies and many explanations of doping cases, I realized that doping very rarely happens alone by the athletes.”
Bach acknowledged his concern for Valieva’s emotional well-being, and noted that other skaters were also affected significantly by her case. He said the IOC has been putting athletes in touch with psychological assistance and other mental health resources available in Beijing.
When asked for his thoughts on the notion that Valieva should not have been allowed to compete following the discovery of her failed drug test, Bach pointed out that the IOC, too, was in favor of that outcome.
After learning of Valieva’s positive test result, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) temporarily suspended her, but then proceeded to reinstate her after she appealed the decision. The IOC, World Anti-Doping Agency, and International Skating Union appealed the decision to lift the suspension, prompting the CAS to schedule a hearing.
“We challenged this decision,” Bach said. “We went to court. We did not want her to participate, and we lost the court case. We have had to respect the rule of law. Because if we are not respecting it, if we are abandoning the rule of law, there is no international sports anymore. We had to accept this.”
According to Bach, the IOC executive board has already begun to review possible rule changes, including whether there is a need to adapt the anti-doping policies and whether there is a need to implement a minimum age for participation.
Although the situation has sparked controversy and concern for a number of reasons, Bach seemed generally pleased with the IOC’s response. He stressed that one of the major duties of the governing bodies is to maintain “fair competition” across all sports.
“The anti-doping rules are there to ensure a fair competition,” he said. “This leads me to the conclusion that, in a fair competition, the same rules have to apply to everybody. For this, we will have to argue and we will have to see how this can be achieved while respecting the special circumstances of athletes.”