In the decades that have passed since the defrocking of Ben Johnson at Seoul in 1988, no other single episode has damaged the credibility and the image of the Olympic movement as much as the sad, awful saga of the fall of figure skating icon Kamila Valieva at these Beijing Winter Games.
The Olympics are supposed to lift us up and inspire us with their tales of extraordinary athletes doing extraordinary things but the Valieva episode was the opposite of that.
The women’s individual figure skating was the highest-profile event of these Olympics and it made its audience feel sick. It made us look at the Olympics and feel only disgust and grief for what they have come to stand for in 2022.
Kamila Valieva broke down after the 15-year-old was sent out for a doomed figure skating final
The longer these Games have gone on, the more they have underlined what we already knew: that the Olympics has become a movement that is in thrall to power elites, a movement that will sacrifice anything and anyone — even a 15-year-old child — in its pursuit of riches and influence and its obeisance to dictators. It fits in, sadly, with its appeasement of China over the treatment of tennis player Peng Shuai.
Valieva’s final doomed routine in the free skate element of the women’s individual event in Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on Thursday was one of the most uncomfortable sporting spectacles I have seen.
It felt like a scene from an exploitation film. It reduced some people watching it to tears. It was an embarrassment to the very idea of sport.
It was a form of child abuse played out in front of hundreds of millions of viewers because of an epic failure of courage from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the ineffectuality of drug-testers who presided over unacceptable delays in the return of test results and the weakness of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). It was also yet another kick in the teeth for clean athletes.
This scandal has unfolded under IOC president Thomas Bach, and responsibility lies with him
Valieva was berated by her coaches after her display, which dropped them down the order
It amounts to an entire Olympic system that is broken. A system that is failing its athletes, its associations and its viewers. ‘She has been thrown before the world to be devoured,’ former Olympic champion Katarina Witt said, crying, after Valieva fell twice and finished out of the medals.
Valieva was berated by her coach when she came off the ice. ‘The whole world was watching and she broke,’ Witt said.
There will, of course, be more calls for Valieva to be banned for some time after it emerged she failed a drugs test taken during the Russian Figure Skating Championships in St Petersburg on December 25. There is a harsh legitimacy to those calls. But she should not be at the front of the queue for punishment. She should, in fact, be closer to the back.
Because this tragedy has played out on two levels. On the first level, it is about the betrayal of an individual, a child, a 15-year-old who had been pumped full of heart medications to improve her performance.
Only one of them was on the banned list but why were any of them in her body? The adults responsible for administering them to her should be banned. And then they should be jailed.
The teenager was subjected to a form of child abuse on the ice and it was a stain on the Games
The manipulation of children at the Olympics — supposedly for our entertainment — has to end. If that means raising the minimum age where athletes are allowed to compete to 17 or 18, so be it. Valieva was known as Miss Perfect because she was so brilliant but everybody seemed to forget she was a human being.
On another level, what happened to Valieva in Beijing was a proof of a systemic failure in the Olympic movement, a movement in desperate need of root-and-branch reform.
The greatest responsibility for that lies with IOC president Thomas Bach. All this, the whole preamble to the shabby events that transpired, has happened on his watch. The Valieva episode was merely the chronicle of a death foretold.
It was not the death of innocence because innocence at the Olympics was lost a long, long time ago. But it did feel like the death of hope for a better future in the Games.
At its heart is the Russian state-sponsored doping programme that was uncovered after the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the IOC’s ongoing failure to deal with the fallout from it.
Once the punishment was fudged — with the approval of CAS — and Russian athletes were allowed to compete under the risible conceit that they were competing not for their country but for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), all credibility was lost.
Russia compete in Beijing under the ROC guise has already ruined the Games’ credibility
Sports Illustrated referred to the ROC as a ‘shell corporation’ for Russia and it was right. That conceit, that sleight of hand, that pathetic delusion that we would be fooled into allowing a nation to compete just by changing its name, led us to Beijing and to the doomsday scenario that played out.
It led us to a child cracking under the most fearsome pressure, it led us to her being verbally abused by her coach as she wept.
The IOC allowed this to happen. They allowed a nation to compete — in everything but name — that has an horrific record of doping and they asked us all to look the other way. And then they are surprised when a 15-year-old child tests positive for a banned substance under the auspices of this ridiculous surrogate and turns an Olympics into a sick sideshow.
How do we get to a point where the competitors began Thursday’s free skate programme knowing that if Valieva finished in the top three, there would be no medal ceremony? How much are the IOC willing to sacrifice for this charade?
If they’re willing to scrap the medal ceremony, if they’re embarrassed about their medal winners, maybe they should just have done with it and scrap the competition, too.
For all its recent troubles, we have still tried to see the Olympics as an antidote to the cynicism of professional sport but what has happened in Beijing has shown that if sport had a medal ceremony for cynicism, the IOC would stand on the top step of the podium.
Bielsa must stay
Ahead of Leeds United’s visit to Manchester United on Sunday, there was speculation about who will succeed Marcelo Bielsa.
This speculation is an inevitable corollary of a difficult season disfigured by injuries to key players but I hope we are not approaching the end of Bielsa’s stay in English football quite yet.
Rumours are swelling around Leeds United replacing their head coach Marcelo Bielsa
Watching them play in the three-and-a-half years since he arrived at Elland Road has been a joy and an education, an exercise in bravery and daring and ambition and over-achieving. For much of that time, there hasn’t been any team better to watch across all four top divisions.
So whoever succeeds Bielsa, I’d prefer it if it doesn’t happen for a little while longer.
I had almost forgotten what it feels like to stand on an open terrace for 90 minutes in the pouring rain in the middle of an English winter when it’s freezing cold and there’s a storm coming in.
The reality is that when your team wins 3-1, as Stockport County did at Bromley last Tuesday night, and all four goals are absolute crackers, it really doesn’t feel too bad at all.