At a few minutes before 9 a.m. ET Tuesday, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva whispered onto the ice at the Capital Indoor Stadium (where it was 10 p.m.), and gracefully (of course) accelerated to full speed in her warm-up for the Olympic women’s short program. Two weeks ago, Valieva was known largely to figure skating fans only, many of whom regarded her as the best skater in history, with a breathtaking combination of power and style. That was then. As Valieva slowed to a stop and paused before beginning her program from the center of the ice, she was known to millions more, partly for that same reason, but mostly for another.
We are 45 days into 2022, and doping remains undefeated. It is a singular force in all of sports, regardless of athletes’ age, gender, nationality, or even species (yes, horse racing, looking at you), a living breathing 'Hmmmmm' that hovers over every competition, every achievement, every record. It is the elephant in the stadium, the gym, and now the rink, too often implicating every athlete while punishing only a few. The anti-doping bureaucracy regularly busts athletes, groups, and even entire nations, like a toddler fighting a raging brush fire with his toy bucket and shovel and maybe a little red fireman’s hat. But after all, one of those punished nations is Russia, which proves the larger point: Doping endures, anti-doping flounders. Valieva manifestly skated alone Tuesday morning, but in truth she evoked a generation or more of athletes caught cheating or deeply suspected and never caught. She gave us that familiar feeling that what our eyes saw, our minds could not -- or would not -- accept as real, or genuine. Or fair. Something. The uncertainty is among the worst pieces of this.
It is rare that the doping ecosystem is so fully on display in one place, perhaps not since U.S. track and field sprinter Justin Gatlin, who served a four-year suspension for doping, was narrowly beaten by the beloved Usain Bolt at the finish of the 100 meters in the 2015 track and field world championships. Bolt was seen as carrying on his shoulders all that is good and clean about sports, where Gatlin represented shortcuts, unfairness and some sort of athletic evil. (Even that was complicated; Gatlin always maintained his innocence. And there were plenty in the sport, afflicted with PTSD from covering the sport, who wondered if Bolt was too fast, despite a squeaky clean testing record. In this way, doping won that day, even while losing).
In this case, there was an athlete with a positive drug test competing for a nation that is banned from Olympic competition, but many of whose best athletes are competing under a compromise that allows them to represent the "Russian Olympic Committee," a ban as toothless as a newborn. The ROC has won 20 medals in Beijing, only Norway (26) has more, which doesn’t seem like much of a ban. Valieva was also competing after what could be seen in a certain light as the requisite doping skullduggery (a test result from December not made public until February), and after a positive ruling from an international tribunal at which one IOC member said publicly that the ROC claimed that Valieva's grandfather takes the banned medication (trimetazidine, a heart medication that could improve endurance in athletes), and that Valieva had ingested it accidentally. No doping case would be compete without a creative contamination story. (Yes, some creative contamination stories are true, but many are comical).
And there was Valieva's age, a discomforting complication. Sports fans, and Olympic sports fans most specifically, long ago struck a wobbly alliance with the concept of grown adults getting entertainment from the performances of tiny, young girls. This goes back at least to Russian gymnast Olga Korbut in 1972, for a semi-modern reference. The arrangement is delicate at best, inappropriate at worst, but balances on the idea that if we’re going to watch and celebrate very young runners, gymnasts, swimmers, skaters, you (the giant pyramid that has parents at the base and sports’ governance at the top) are going to take care of them. Okay?
The USA gymnastics scandal, which included some of the best athletes in history, demonstrated that the agreement has been shamefully, and tragically violated. There have been many other recent examples, as the #MeToo movement helped empower young – and no longer young, but still very scarred – women to come forward and demand justice. It’s not possible to know at this point the extent to which Valieva understood that she had consumed a banned substance, but there is a history of unscrupulous nations drugging women for athletic (and monetary and geopolitical) gain. It’s also important to distinguish between sexual abuse and involuntary doping, but just as important to understand that both are forms of abuse.
In the Valieva case, which is in its infancy and will likely carry on long after Tuesday morning’s television audience (and Tuesday night’s larger audience in prime time) has moved on from the pull of the moment, there is the issue of her unlikely complicity. There’s an axiom in that world that none of us knows what another is doing in their bathroom when nobody is watching. But clearly, it stretches common sense and ignores basic compassion to suggest that Valieva was knowingly and purposely doping herself at age 15, or younger. Nevertheless, she is the face of the controversy, in Beijing and writ large. It’s unfortunate that she was very possibly put in this position by adults to whom not just her success, but her care, was entrusted. The information exchange would probably be less complicated if Valieva was a 32-year-old weightlifter.
The skating piece of this seems almost tangential, but there is only a story because of skating. Valieva did not perform at her otherworldly best in the short program. She wobbled out of an early jump, and seemed to cry at the finish in way that did not look performative or celebratory. But she’s still in first place because she can win without her A-plus game.
It was instructive and jarring that NBC’s Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir barely spoke during Valieva skate, almost as if expressing their disapproval with silence. Then they expressed it with words.
Weir: "All I feel I can say is that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics."
Lipinski: "I don’t know how many times over the past year I’ve said that she is the best figure skater I’ve ever seen. That not only makes me confused, it makes me angry, and disoriented by everything I thought I knew.”
I’ve seldom heard a better description of the doping-and-sport nexus better than Lipinski’s description: Disoriented. Sports fans, sports lovers, and yes, sports media, are drawn to competition either fully or partly to let ourselves be held in thrall to what we’re watching. Sports are an imperfect world. No question. It took much too long for women to gain equal access to opportunity; much too long for college athletes to gain access to some of the sport’s towering pile of money; and it took much too long for professional football (and by extension all levels of football) to make some efforts – however challenging – to protect players from enduring head trauma.
But the games and the races and the matches and the competitions are connected with their audiences because of the joys -- and sure, the sadness -- they bring. The unfettered emotions. Doping has fundamentally altered that relationship. (Yes, more for some than others; there are plenty of people who feel that concussions are a fair cover charge to live the life of an NFL player, which is an absurd position). Doping makes many of us watch with one eyebrow slightly raised, squirming in our seat. The experience changes, and every performance becomes subject less to celebration and more to scrutiny.
On Thursday morning in the U.S. (Thursday night in Beijing), Valieva will skate her long program. She will probably skate surpassingly well, but we will be deprived of fully sharing in the moment, because of what we know and what don’t know yet. She will be deprived, too. There will be no medal ceremony, because of facts not yet in evidence which may later be learned. There will be no flags raised toward the high ceiling of the rink, just the deadening absence of normalcy and celebration.
Doping again lurking, mocking, winning. There is no stake sharp enough to drive through its heart.