BEIJING (AP) — No matter how the IOC tries to spin it, the enduring symbol of the Beijing Games — and really, of the entire Olympic movement — is a sad little girl put in an untenable position by adults who have no no shame.
Many serious issues will need to be resolved once the flame is extinguished, from anti-doping rules to age limits to tyrannical coaches, but we must not lose sight of the bigger issues:
What will it take for the Olympics to truly live up to their ideals?
Is meaningful change even possible at this point?
“Who will save Olympic and Paralympic sport in our time? asked Max Cobb, president and CEO of the U.S. biathlon program. “I don’t think the movement can wait many more years of this dubious authenticity before its value is so eroded that other interests overshadow it and it is lost for another millennium.”
Kamila Valieva flew out of the Winter Olympics on Friday, her dreams shattered at the tender age of 15, and there’s no reason to think she’d ever want to return after what she’s been through in Beijing.
The Russian kid – and let’s not forget she’s just a kid – shouldn’t have been allowed to compete in women’s figure skating after she tested positive for a banned heart medication.
But she competed, setting up the harrowing spectacle of a gold medal favorite, utterly overwhelmed by the scrutiny of the past two weeks, stumbling, stumbling and falling completely out of medals on an extraordinary night at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
As hard as it was to watch, maybe it was a good thing it happened. The hypocrisy of the Olympic movement was never more apparent than those four minutes the world came together to watch a train crash in real time.
Each time Valieva missed a jump, the images should have crossed our consciousness.
The Olympics are taking place in a country accused of genocide against its Uyghur minority. The Russians get one pass after another despite repeated doping violations and cover-ups. Sponsors only care about their bottom line. The International Olympic Committee turns a blind eye to all of this, content with the status quo as long as it comes with first-class flights, five-star hotels and per diems that are more than some people earn in a year.
If anyone tried to turn away, they should have opened their eyes like Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange.”
IOC President Thomas Bach took to the microphone the morning after the figure skating debacle to feign all sorts of outrage at the way things have gone, which should carry as much weight as one of the rants Kanye’s Twitter.
“I have to say I was very, very upset when I watched the competition on TV,” Bach said, trying to sound serious. “To see her there struggling on the ice, to see how she tries to pull herself together, how then she tries to finish her program, you could in every movement of body language, you could feel that it’s a huge, huge stress mental and maybe she would have preferred to leave the ice and try to leave this story behind her.
Of course, Bach and his IOC minions would love nothing more than to leave this story behind.
Rest assured, in the days, weeks and months to come, they will speak highly of their 2.5 weeks in China, no doubt portraying Valieva as just a blip in another hugely successful game. Once all the checks have been cashed, they’ll tally up their profits and giddily consider an even bigger haul to Paris, two years from now, when hopefully the scourge of COVID-19 has subsided.
We can’t let them go so easily.
The Olympic movement needs a total reset of its priorities, which probably won’t happen until big sponsors and influential broadcasters like NBC threaten to put away their checkbooks.
“It’s time for NBC, Visa, Proctor & Gamble, Alibaba and everyone else to step up and get it right for athletes,” said Travis Tygart, CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency. “Enough of overlapping fences by the companies that support the Games financially. They are the real power and they have to step in and do the right thing for the athletes.
Tygart’s main focus is the anti-doping code which was largely a sham in Beijing. Valieva’s youth – and the special treatment given to her under the rules – has already led to calls to raise the minimum age for Olympic athletes to 18.
It’s a start, but it’s just the tip of a huge iceberg. The system seems largely designed to protect dopers, to the detriment of athletes trying to do things the right way.
“With probably over $100 million spent each year on global anti-doping efforts, how could all of these well-intentioned efforts leave athletes and the sports-loving public so utterly dissatisfied, disillusioned and feeling that the integrity of sport is at stake right now??” Cobb rightly asked.
Don’t get distracted by the shiny object that the CIO is already trying to throw at us, to distract us from bigger, systematic issues.
Yes, a Valieva coach’s bully, Eteri Tutberidze, deserves all the contempt we can muster for the way she treated the crestfallen teenager coming off the ice. “Why did you give up? Why did you stop fighting? Tutberidze asked Valieva, like a shark circling its prey.
“When I then saw how she was received by those closest to her, with such coldness that seemed like enormous coldness, it was chilling to see that,” Bach said.
What has become of the Olympic movement is even scarier.
The whole world saw it for four lousy minutes in Beijing.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
More AP Winter Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/winter-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
National AP writers Eddie Pells and Ted Anthony contributed to this report.
Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee reacts after the women’s free skating routine during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee reacts after competing in the women’s free skating program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee reacts after the women’s free skating routine during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)