The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Beijing 2022 will be remembered as the ‘scandal Olympics’

Kamila Valieva breaks down in tears after multiple falls and errors in her women's free skate program at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 17 in Beijing. (Bernat Armangue/AP). (Bernat Armangue/AP)
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The lasting image of the Beijing 2022 Olympics will be 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva collapsing into tears after a disastrous free skate that put her out of medal contention. Ms. Valieva tested positive for a banned substance, yet the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed her to skate anyway. Her final performance was a painful display of a teenager’s mental breakdown. She fell twice and had mistakes throughout. The whole ordeal looked a lot like child abuse, complete with her coach berating her as she sobbed.

The Olympics have long been filled with controversy, but this marked another low point. It cemented Beijing 2022 as the “scandal Olympics.”

Even before Ms. Valieva’s drama, there were major problems. Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai was forced to retire from tennis and recant her accusations of sexual assault by a former Chinese official around the start of the Games. The International Olympic Committee then aided what amounted to a Chinese coverup.

Opinion: The world deserves answers about China’s tennis star

Concerns about China’s human rights abuses in Tibet and against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang were so strong that the United States, Australia, Canada and Britain adopted a diplomatic boycott of the Games. Yet the IOC brushed off human rights concerns, even allowing a spokeswoman for Beijing 2022 organizers, Yan Jiarong, to tell reporters their questions about Uyghurs were “based on lies.”

Then there was the fact that the Games took place in a nation whose leadership refuses to tell the full truth about how the covid-19 pandemic began and has such a history of spying on people that journalists and athletes were warned to leave their regular tech devices at home and bring burner phones to the Olympics.

IOC President Thomas Bach attempted to gain back some moral high ground Friday by saying he was “disturbed” by the “chilling” women’s free skate fiasco. But it’s hard to take Mr. Bach seriously given that he led the IOC during Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal at the 2014 Olympics. The IOC refused to come down hard on Russia, enabling the further abuse of athletes such as Ms. Valieva.

Russia is embroiled in another doping controversy. No one should be surprised.

To be fair, there were some moments of true Olympic spirit. Finnish cross-country skiing champion Iivo Niskanen waited at the finish line to cheer on the last to cross, Colombia’s Carlos Andres Quintana. Snowboarders from around the world lined up to cheer and hug five-time Olympian Shaun White after his final run. Many rooted for Donovan Carrillo, Mexico’s first male figure skater in 30 years, who trains at a mall ice rink. And American Erin Jackson became the first Black woman to win an individual speedskating medal when she earned gold in the 500-meter event.

But these uplifting moments were overshadowed by unsavory conduct and scandal. It took more than 40 days to check Ms. Valieva’s drug sample, a suspiciously long time. Russia’s female ice hockey team had a covid outbreak and failed to report test results on time. China’s Internet trolls shamed athletes who did not perform well. And Russia’s silver medalist in women’s figure skating shouted “I hate this sport” when she learned her result.

China has a message for Winter Olympic athletes: Shut up and ski

If the Olympics are going to survive, organizers must do some soul-searching. Substance testing needs reform. More sports might need to set minimum age requirements, as women’s gymnastics has done. And the IOC needs to either ensure basic human rights in the host country or find a permanent host nation that is a democracy.

The Olympics are supposed to celebrate human athletic achievement, not which nation can best abuse young athletes and hoodwink the IOC.

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