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The Olympic wait

To be blunt, the women’s Olympic figure skating competition is not going well. It’s not because of poor performances, or bad judging, or even because of the empty arena – although that is disquieting. It’s because the skater poised to win the women’s individual competition and one of the keys to Russia’s gold in the team event, is at the center of a performance enhancing drug controversy that taken over the discourse of the entire competition. As you’ve likely heard, Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian skating prodigy, tested positive for the heart medication trimetazidine, and I apologize for that, or TMZ, that can increase endurance. That, believe it or not, is the simple part.

It turns out this result came from a December 25 test at the Russian national championships, although the Russian Antidoping Agency, and that is like jumbo shrimp, claims it didn’t get the result until February 7. That was the same day the Russians won the team gold. Even if this is all true, and there’s little to suggest it is, it’s clear the Russians made no efforts to move along what should have been an expedited process. And who knows what’s happened before this event, given Russia’s well-deserved reputation as the new East Germany when it comes to sports doping.

Regardless of how they got there, it’s now clearly a problem. To buy some breathing room, the Court of Arbitration for Sport made a few stop gap decisions, all with the intent of not making a mistake that can’t be undone. So Valieva will not be kicked out of the Games and will be allowed to continue to skate in the open competition, which will conclude on Thursday, where Valieva currently leads after the first of two skates. At that point, no one will receive a medal, and there won’t be any medal celebration – for Valieva or anyone else. That goes for the already concluded team event, including the American team that finished second. At some point in the future, the IOC will determine whether Valieva is or isn’t eligible and award medals accordingly, likely in a hotel lobby somewhere. Which means that technically the Americans could still win the team gold, and Valieva could go home with nothing. In other words, it’s a hot mess.

Of course, you couldn’t tell this story without remembering two important facts. First, Valieva is 15 years old and skates for a coach who uses the Béla Károlyi method of training – in other words, abusive. So villainizing a minor who operating under a cruel regime makes no sense, and we should recognize the insanity of Russia’s sports machine. Second, and along those lines, remember that technically Russia doesn’t even have a team at these Olympics. Instead, it’s a group of Russian athletes under the name and flag of the Russian Olympic Committee. And all of that is because of Russia’s ongoing and flagrant abuse of performance enhancing drugs in the Olympic training program. Clearly, a tiger doesn’t change its stripes.

There are two issues that must be dealt with. The first is fairly immediate. Namely, what are they going to do about Kamila Valieva performance at the Beijing Games? Are they going award her medals, and are they going to acknowledge it before everyone goes home? It’s pretty clear where public sentiment is on this, or at least Western public sentiment. I understand everyone who critiques the World Anti-Doping Agency’s rules as ridiculous, unenforceable, and perhaps arbitrary. But I also tend to believe that the answer to questionable rules isn’t to selectively ignore them. As much as it might hurt, it does seem that allowing Valieva to win Olympic medals makes the Olympics more of farce than it already is. And either way, not having a medal ceremony is like skipping cake at a kid’s birthday part. So I’d suggest they get on with it.

Second, and this is more complicated, is what’s the path forward for an Olympic movement that’s at best broken. The IOC has skirted around the fact that Russia, and well China, refuse to play by any semblance of rules. And for that, the punishments have been that Russia can’t use their own flag and China hosts every other Games. That’s not exactly an impediment. And this is not to somehow glorify every other nation’s Olympic program. But it does raise the question that if the Olympic Games, the embodiment of sports purity, are essentially lawless, then what’s the point.

That, among other things, is yet another existential question for a movement that feels less sustainable by the day. One that like this year’s women’s skating competition, is not going well.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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