Crime on Ice
It's hard to overstate the collateral damage of letting Russian skater Kamila Valieva perform after testing positive—for her, other skaters, and all of us
Kamila Valieva spins like a top. Around and around she goes, as if gravity doesn’t touch her. Watching her is a thing of beauty. It’s hard to take your eyes off her.
Except her presence on the ice was a reminder that we live in a world of corruption and cruel ambition. It’s a world where even a 15-year-old girl, a child really, must be doubted. Did this prodigy purposefully take trimetazidine, a heart medicine that is banned from the Olympics because it increases blood flow efficiency and improves endurance? Was it all just a mistake, a medication prescribed to her grandfather that she somehow didn’t realize was a banned substance?
Is she the latest villain in the ongoing story of corruption and crime that dates back to at least the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi when the Russians doubled their medal count from just four years earlier in Vancouver—a story grimly displaying their determination to win big at any cost, even when it requires cheating and destroying the lives of their athletes? Or is Kamila Valieva a victim, either unwittingly given this banned drug or convinced that she had to take it if she wanted to ensure her chances of winning a gold medal?
And perhaps most critically: Was there any justifiable reason to let this young girl proceed, despite testing positive, despite the risk to her mental health?
These are the kinds of questions that put American skating commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir in a terrible quandary. These stylish veterans were keenly aware of Russia’s well-documented, state-sponsored doping history that included systematically replacing tainted urine samples with clean ones to stay in the games.
“It’s a slap in the face to every other skater,” Weir asserted on Tuesday, adding, “If you can’t play fair, then you can’t play—and it’s a shame because she is a tremendous athlete.”
“It’s not just about her skating or not skating,” added Lipinski. “It’s affecting everyone at these Olympic Games to think that there’s going to be no medal ceremony if she’s on the podium…Imagine how it’s affecting so many other skaters’ lives and their experiences.”
As a casual fan, I wanted to watch Valieva skate, never mind the controversy. But how could I watch her skate when her very presence on the ice is a reminder that these supremely gifted athletes are exploited by a political and economic system motivated to win by any means necessary, no matter the damage it causes? Some are questioning the role of her unforgiving, hard-driving coach, Eteri Tutberidze, whose aggressive program has caused many of her young talents to exit skating with serious injuries and eating disorders.
Keep in mind that the International Olympic Committee banned the Russian Federation from the 2018 Winter Olympics, yet still permitted 168 Russian athletes to compete without the Russian flag or anthem. Then, in 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency barred Russia from competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and 2022 in Beijing. All eyes were on the disgraced Russian athletes permitted by the IOC to compete as part of the Russian Olympic Committee (no flags, no anthem).
Yes, this is a story about skating, about the Olympics, about questions of fairness and the struggles athletes face in their quest for greatness. But sadly, this is about far more than one skater breaking the rules; that transgression harms not only her but everyone who is a part of a broken culture.
In our focus on the crime itself, far too often we miss the collateral damage. As Lipinski and Weir wisely note, Valieva’s violation—and the decision to let her skate anyway—harms everyone dedicated to living their lives with honesty and integrity. It’s easy to forget how the Olympics was meant to express a positive ideal.
These days we may shrug our shoulders and imagine that that’s just the way the world works. But that resigned attitude exemplifies the victory of the corrupt. The more we assume that’s just the way it is—that we ought to accept this grim fate—the more that ravenously amoral power-seekers will keep finding new ways to get ahead. And they will laugh with dark pleasure about the weak and foolish who let them get away with it and define the world.
Valieva’s free skate on Thursday was painful to watch. The girl who had been described as the best skater in the world was cracking under pressure. The beautiful spinning top, previously untouched by gravity, fell to the ice over and over.
Finishing fourth, the medal ceremony could go on. Doubts about Valieva’s legality would not deny the other skaters from getting their moment. But the collateral damage had already been done, when the cynical operators decided that their bitter fruits mattered more than the lives of others.
In the torturous, over-wrought minutes after Valieva lost—when she and her teammates broke down in tears—thoughts about corruption drifted away with worry about the continuing impact of this situation on her mental health. It offered a cruel reminder of what happens when adults fail to live up to their moral responsibility and protect a child.
“On a human level,” Johnny Weir said after the final skate, “I can’t imagine going through what she’s been through. But that doesn’t change the fact she should have been nowhere near this competition.”
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