Don’t let Kamila Valieva’s ordeal be meaningless. Make it matter. Let it become an inflection point for the governance reform that every decent person in the Olympic world knows is needed. This was not just about a 15-year-old girl foundering under impossible stress or the chilliness of a Russian state system. It wasn’t about doping, either. It was about a fundamentally abusive and unethical structure in which a cadre of self-dealers commodifies kids at every turn, yet every consequence for supposed “dirtiness” is borne by athletes alone, never officials who so unquestionably out-dirty and outcheat any competitor.
What you felt as she skated was more than aghast sympathy. It was a steadily compounding, aggrieved sense that not only was a kid crushed before your eyes but that the things we all know are so very, very wrong in the sprawlingly corrupt global governance of the Games can’t begin to be fixed with the people currently in charge. On top of all else, Valieva skated against an unseen power current, an undertow of futility.
But the Games can be fixed, or at least repaired, with three basic reforms:
First, establish term limits on the International Olympic Committee. Enough of these 30-year reigns by profiteering, autocrat-hugging barons like President Thomas Bach. He professes to be appalled by the “tremendous coldness” of the Russian entourage — this from a man who abetted the suppression of Peng Shuai and countenanced the use of sweatshop torture-camp Xinjiang cotton to manufacture Olympic staff uniforms. If allowed, Bach and his cronies will silo this as strictly a Russian problem and try to get away with a single rule proposal for an age eligibility standard — when what’s needed is an overhaul of what bioethicist Thomas Murray calls the whole Olympic “ecosystem.”
Murray’s apt word suggests organisms that feed. By the term, he means the entire “array” of characters who created the Valieva moral disaster — not just coaches, trainers and doctors but “sports officials, bureaucrats, grifters, and government agents and officials who benefit from the success of the athletes,” as he wrote in a recent essay. Limiting terms will limit the temptations and incentives.
Second, establish a truth commission — an independent body to weigh rule changes that would make the IOC athlete-centered, and based on the underlying reality that elite Olympic-level competition does not build up young bodies but rather is a fundamentally unhealthily striving enterprise that breaks them down, physically and psychically. Training and accompanying pressure from economic to domestic politics, can create what Murray, the president emeritus of the Hastings Center ethics-research institute, calls “inherent coerciveness.” How can we combat that? It’s not just a problem for Russia; it’s a problem for states and societies that fancy themselves virtuous, including this one, which sends boys with necks thin as dandelions onto youth football fields and girls into the clutches of pedophiles. Query athletes, coaches, trainers and doctors about the real state of affairs in their national organizations, who needs to go and what rules might deter the users, predators and grifters.
Third, undertake a total reconstruction of the anti-doping effort and wholesale reconsideration of the banned list, with a compassionate eye on the health dilemma. Replace the World Anti-Doping Agency with an entirely independent body made up strictly of unencumbered bioethicists, scientists, trainers and, of course, athletes — people who are not entangled in the IOC’s power-prestige struggles. Declare a reasonable amnesty period for the purpose of candid inquiry. Re-examine the philosophical question of what a recovery agent is in relation to other proven performance enhancers. Create a short, new list — and comprehensible literature that stresses the quite salient fact that most of “performance enhancement” is, as Murray has observed, “illusory” and thus not worth the risk.
As matters stand, the women’s figure skating was nothing more than a scene from “Game of Thrones,” a Cersei walk of shame for Valieva, with no good purpose coming from it and the whole world colluding in the awful spectacle. TV commentators helped set up the intolerable situation with three days of icy remarks about how she shouldn’t be allowed to compete — because of a drug about which there is not even any consensus that it’s beneficial — and when the utterly predictable happened and she fell out of the medals, they suddenly struggled to express compassion and accused the coach of coldness and abuse. True enough, but was the coach any colder than the commentators?
U.S. anti-doping head Travis Tygart’s answer was to further criminalize her by promoting the fact that she also had two over-the-counter medications in her system and to create even more suspicion about dirty “cocktails” — and all you could think was, for the love of God, are we really doing this? Are we really now saying that she must have been triple-guilty because she was also found to have traces of legal substances in her? Talk about black waters — and, by the way, good job incentivizing scores of athletes to hunt for L-carnitine.
Meanwhile, whatever anyone put in Valieva’s precious frame, it most certainly was not such a competitive advantage that it helped her find a stable edge in competition or prevented her from falling twice during Thursday’s free skate. It could not help her overcome a nervous mind and constitution shattered by the pure wall-to-wall meanness of this system.
We need a new list and literature that allows athletes (and their countries) to use some things to recover and that deters, explains and incentivizes in persuasive terms why they are better off not using others. Murray, who was once the founding chair of WADA’s ethics board, has observed with a combination of realism, philosophy and genuine morality that anti-doping prohibition “creates at least as many problems as it solves. It requires an expensive and cumbersome apparatus, turning athletes and officials into mutually suspicious adversaries.” It also drives drug use “underground” and costs officialdom credibility when it fails. It has utterly failed. We all know that.
What makes something a true failure or tragedy is when nothing is learned from mistakes. So let’s begin there, with a determination to learn from the mistakes that surrounded Valieva’s experience. Not to demonize Russians, or accept more coverup blather from the bloated, decayed IOC. The heart revolts, utterly revolts, at the idea that Valieva’s skate will be meaningless as well as medal-less. Every Olympian and every person interested in the Olympics should insist that it matter, from federation to individual. We need a whole new IOC, with a new Olympic philosophy, one invested with candor, mercy and real fellow-feeling. One in which athletes don’t just compete for prizes, but one in which they are the real prizes.
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The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics have come to a close.
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