To paraphrase Mario Balotelli, why is it always them?
Was it not enough that Russia corrupted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi with a devilish scheme that involved Federal Security Service agents passing steroid-riddled urine samples through a mouse hole before swapping them with clean urine? The act was so devious that the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, later called it “a shocking and unprecedented attack on the integrity of sports and on the Olympic Games”.
Was it not enough that, as the esteemed law professor Richard McLaren found in 2016, the Russian government, security services and sporting authorities colluded to hide doping across more than 1,000 athletes in more than 30 sports – a practice that became state policy after the country’s poor performance at the 2010 Winter Games?
Even as late as 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency found Russia had manipulated data from the Moscow anti-doping laboratory to stop investigators banning more of its athletes. That is the reason why Russia is competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee in Beijing, and their anthem is banned.
And now, the greatest tragedy of all. A 15-year-old girl, already perhaps the greatest female skater in history, caught in a complicated mess, as the world’s media pick over the bones of her positive doping test.
It is a tragedy because it is impossible to imagine Kamila Valieva ordering a banned drug off the internet, finding it in a family medicine cabinet, or whatever the explanation might be, and – on a whim – taking it. If trimetazidine was in her system someone must have passed it on, perhaps telling her it was for recovery, be it an individual, entourage or even a state.
And it is a tragedy because to see Valieva up close is to marvel at one of the finest athletes in global sport. Twice in the past week I have had a rinkside seat, with perhaps just 30 or 40 others, while she has practised: the equivalent of seeing Lady Gaga playing an intimate pub gig. Time and again she has made the impossible look effortless: triple axels, triple toe loops, triple lutzes, even the famed quad. In a different system perhaps she would have time to etch her greatness with an indelible marker. Instead, with a doping ban still looming, Tuesday and Thursday might be the last times she skates at a Winter Olympics.
That is why, for all the condemnation of the court of arbitration for sport’s decision on Monday, it did not feel entirely unfair for it to allow her to compete again despite her positive test.
At least this way she gets more time to fight her case and for the World Anti‑Doping Agency to investigate those around her. And, if a doping ban does come months down the line, at least it will avoid a public shaming in front of the eyes of hundreds of millions of people, although other skaters denied the chance to stand on the podium would vehemently disagree.
To many the Valieva case has arisen because of an extraordinary set of circumstances across 44 days. On 25 December Valieva gave a drugs test at the Russian figure skating championships. Yet it was only on 8 February, a day after the 15-year-old inspired her country to gold in the team skating, that she learned she had tested positive. The reason for the delay? A Covid outbreak among workers at a doping laboratory in Sweden.
However, this is not a 44-day problem but one stretching over at least six or seven years, from the moment the full extent of Russia’s doping problem started to seep out.
Not so long ago the broken windows theory became popular among politicians. The idea is simple: if you allow damage in a community to linger, it only promotes more crime and disorder. Therefore problems should be eradicated immediately. This, to put it mildly, has not been an approach taken by global sport leaders.
At every turn they have talked tough on Russia while applying a homeopathic approach and diluting potential punishments. Perhaps it was necessarily realpolitik. Perhaps it was the only strategy to ensure innocent athletes were not wrongly caught up in the crimes and punishment of the broader state. But it has looked painfully weak: the equivalent of a parent punishing a child who attempts to burn down a house by wagging a finger and telling them to stand on the naughty step.
But without real incentives to reform – or a fear they could be truly kicked out of international sport – how will Russia ever truly change?
However, when it comes to the abuse of young athletes, it is not just Russia, and it is not only doping. In the US and Britain we have heard horrific tales of sexual and physical abuse, particularly in gymnastics, where girls are required to train as elite athletes from a young age.
As one leading British coach put it to me, it is all too easy for young kids to become vessels for coaches, federations and even states. “Doping is a symptom,” he added. “The disease is the early specialisation of children. It never gets talked about, and the whole situation is tragic.”
Given Valieva’s age, she is classified by Wada as a protected athlete. But how protected is she really from the pressures of an Olympic Games, or the demands of her country and coach? Perhaps it is time to ask whether 13-, 14- or 15‑year‑olds really should be competing at a summer or winter Games.
As Global Athlete, a union that represents thousands of athletes, put it on Monday, Valieva’s positive doping test appears clear evidence of abuse of a minor. “Sport should be protecting its athletes, not damaging them,” it said.
It is hard to argue with that. But in this case words are cheap. Valieva is but a pawn here. And if she ends up tarred and condemned, while a bigger kingpin escapes censure, it would be an affront to natural justice.