What price an Olympic gold medal these days? We know about the blood, sweat and tears, but the costs paid by the 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva in pursuit of the glittering prize rose exorbitantly over the past week in Beijing. The already unstable Olympic currency of values, integrity and humanity devalued further.
There was almost universal horror watching Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, in action. Her harsh questions as Valieva sought to escape the rink after her unravelling performance caused consternation. Even the fence-sitting International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, spoke out. But after the initial repudiation and disgust, her approach struck a troublesome chord. Perhaps a flashback to a teacher or parent, a sports coach or another instructor.
It has rung bells in my own head and with others I used to train and compete with. Sam Parfitt, chief executive of The True Athlete Project, said what is perhaps most chilling about Tutberidze’s behaviour is that it is “so reminiscent of what you’ll see every weekend, at all levels of sport, from coaches and parents of children who love and then inevitably hate sport”.
The Beijing ice rink drama showed us new obscene depths of where a “win at all costs” mentality can end up. The IOC’s 2020 Agenda of Credibility, Sustainability and Youth that set out to “safeguard the Olympic values and strengthen the role of sport in society” seems irrelevant.
As for the founding philosophy of Olympism that wanted to make the world a better place through sport, Baron de Coubertin’s principles lie shredded, carved up in the thousands of cuts in the Ice Cube’s Olympic rink.
While Valieva’s Cinderella was left in tatters at the end of her skate in a plot with more sinister twists than most fairytales, the next few minutes brought two Russian ice sisters who extended the damage: first, the gold medallist, Anna Shcherbakova, spoke of feeling happiness yet at the same time emptiness. Then the silver medallist, Alexandra Trusova, cried: “Everyone has a gold medal, everyone, but not me. I hate skating. I hate it. I hate this sport. I will never skate again. Never.”
Consider the experience of these young girls: rarely seen to compete beyond a single Olympics and forced to fit into a high-pressured “perfect princess” media narrative, they are soon discarded, damaged dolls left with only a hatred of the sport they once loved and for which they had found a talent.
It is too easy to vilify the Russian Olympic Committee (and the system that enables them to behave with impunity). But we should refrain for a moment from throwing stones from our own glass-plated sporting world. Are we content we are sufficiently different from this detestably narrow pursuit of sport defined by national pride, a medal table and expendable athletes?
Hasn’t the British press followed a consistently narrow approach each day, asking where the British medals are going to come from? Don’t we also have female athletes at the pinnacle of sport exposed to intolerable levels of pressure, with the case of the speed skater Elise Christie immediately coming to mind?
Let’s seize this moment to get our own house in order. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s Duty of Care report from 2017 still has major recommendations outstanding while the Whyte report into British Gymnastics due in the spring will provide another important opportunity to scrutinise our high performance environments and learn some vital lessons.
I have heard from a range of coaches around the world who conclude sadly that the past week in Beijing further proves that the only way to protect minors will be to bring in age limits for elite competition. Valieva has shown the human cost is simply too high. But whatever new regulations ensue, bigger change can only come from greater leadership to set a broader purpose for sport, shift mindsets and behaviours and instil meaningful metrics beyond medals.
I have spoken to school heads of sport and performance coaches seeking to redefine the purpose of sport for their students and athletes. Aware of their responsibility to develop healthy citizens first and foremost, they want to reframe ambitions beyond the next local league trophy or international medal. Too many barriers block their way to building broader frameworks around sport based on values, personal growth, teamwork and a connection to wider communities. This sort of framework was clearly absent from Valieva’s experience but high performers deserve a healthy experience of sport, too.
Opportunity lies at this juncture if only we can shake off the old engrained macho narratives and beliefs around sport. Take Norway, who have won a record-breaking number of gold medals in Beijing and top the medal table. This country of five million people has won more Winter Olympic medals by some distance, while taking a radically different approach to sport based on a concept known as the “joy of sport for all”. No early talent spotting or streaming; the focus is on participation in as many sports as possible. No individual rankings or national championships for children under 13. Tore Ovrebo, director of the Olympiatoppen high performance centre, has spoken of the importance of “developing citizens and not only athletes”.
The defining moment of the summer Olympics last year was Simone Biles stepping back from physically and mentally hurting herself in competition – an incredible act of self-confidence and bravery that followed years of abuse from a similar age as Valieva. She became a global role model for reasons beyond the gymnastics arena. Biles, Naomi Osaka and Emma Raducanu are out in front changing the narrative around the meaning and experience of high performance sport. I hope Valieva is one day able to join them.
Meanwhile, let’s step up to the plate as a country that has so much more to gain from sport than simply counting medals. Let’s create a better way to succeed in sport and beyond – the next generation deserves better.
Cath Bishop is an Olympic rower, former diplomat and the author of The Long Win. She is an adviser to The True Athlete Project and Chair of Love Rowing, GB Rowing’s charitable foundation.
• This article was amended on 22 February 2022. Kamila Valieva’s coach is Eteri Tutberidze, not “Eleni” as the text and photo caption of an earlier version said. And Alexandra Trusova won silver, not gold as a caption said.