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Kamila Valieva’s heartbreak is a symptom of Russia’s Olympic disease

This is about so much more than one cheating athlete.

Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 13 Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Kamila Valieva’s heartbreak following the women’s free skate will be the indelible image of the Beijing Winter Olympics. For minutes we were shown long, lingering camera shots of a 15-year-old crushed after falling in the women’s free skate, subsequently finishing fourth in an event she was expected to win. In that moment there is no schadenfreude, no elation at the notion “cheaters never prosper.” We witnessed a 15-year-old’s world come crashing down in the span of 10 days, now forced to pick up the pieces shattered by a nation that will dispose of her, like so many others.

This is not working. Russia’s participation in the Olympic games cannot be fixed. There is no way to excise their festering, rotten tendrils that still permeate the games — even after sanctions from the IOC.

Valieva has maintained her innocence since it was announced she tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart medicine, on Dec. 25 during the Russian championships. Yes, there is absolutely a chance she’s lying, but Valieva swears she wasn’t aware of taking anything. This, as improbable as it sounds, is supported by experts, who have pointed out that administering trimetazidine without someone’s knowledge is extremely easy. This is not an injection, it has no specific taste, and is not denatured by mixing in foods or liquids. The idea of an athlete taking PEDs without their knowledge might sound ridiculous, but when you’re a 15-year-old under the tutelage of the most notorious skating coach in the world, you do what you’re told. You eat what you’re told. You drink what you’re told. You do everything asked of you, because if you don’t, they’ll find another athlete who will — and you’re done.

Eteri Tutberidze, Valieva’s coach, has a lot to answer for. Or, she would, if anyone in a position of power cared enough to question her. Tutberidze is, by all accounts, a monster. Working exclusively with children, former students of the coach have come forward to detail how they were starved, dehydrated, and forced to compete while injured by the coach. One athlete explained how she was forced to skate on broken toes for hours after she complained of injury. Another said Tutberidze is so obsessed with the weight of her students that she will not allow them to drink water while training, instead watching as they are only allowed to rinse their mouths and spit, before returning to the ice.

Romaine Haguenauer, an Olympic coach for France who operates out of Montreal, has been outspoken in his condemnation of Tutberidze’s tactics.

“We have been saying that she is very tough with her students. She works with little girls, I work more with older skaters. But, to be clear, it would not be possible to train our athletes this way in Western Europe, in the United States or in Canada. It’s very military, very abusive, even, in a way. If I used her methods in my academy in Montreal, I would no longer be on the ice and I would no longer have the right to work with children.”

So, given what we know about her training tactics, and the disposable nature of Tutberidze’s students. Is it really so hard to imagine she wouldn’t participate in doping one of her own skaters to give them an edge? This is a serious allegation, but it’s a question being raised in Russia as well, where the hashtag “#позорТутберидзе” (Shame on you, Tutberidze) has been trending in defense of Valieva.

These are not new scandals. Claims of Tutberidze’s abuse have been detailed for the last five years. The reward for all this: A medal of honor from Vladimir Putin himself, for bringing “glory” to Russian figure skating.

President Putin presents Russias national awards at Moscow Kremlin Photo by Mikhail Metzel\TASS via Getty Images

This is the crux of the issue. There is an unwavering state-sponsored belief of “success at any cost” when it comes to Russia’s participation in the games — and let’s be clear, they’re still very much participating. Stripping the ability for athletes to compete under the Russian flag has been a pointless slap on the wrist. The world knows, and more importantly Russia knows, that they got one over on the IOC. Athletes are still sent to the games, still cheat, and the human cost is unparalleled.

Valieva’s career has been completely tainted at her first Olympic games. It’s become impossible for a Russian athlete to have achievement without there being a shadow of doubt on whether it was clean. All the while the IOC is (unsurprisingly) silent on the issue. They would rather sit back, collect money from Russia as a major Olympic market, and hope the rest of the world falls for their paltry attempts at punishment.

Kamila Valieva is the 15-year-old symptom of a disease that has been growing for decades. One officials have no real desire to actually cure. Now it’s time for the world to act. Russia needs to be completely, and without exception, banned from the Olympic games. Athletes should be forced to either defect and compete for another country, or compete under a flag with no mention of Russia, with a commitment from broadcasters not to mention Russia. The only path forward is to ensure the only way to achieve Olympic glory is by competing clean, and without further sanctions that will never happen.

We will likely never know the complete story of Kamila Valieva, not without unprecedented bravery to blow the whistle on a corrupt system. That’s too much to ask of a 15-year-old, especially one who has endured so much already — and especially without knowing the risk it would put to the safety of Valieva herself, or her family. What we do know is that the unnatural efforts to become an Olympic athlete at the age of 15, the thousands of hours of practice, the childhood sacrificed at the altar of sport, all of it was cancelled out and washed away by a handful of pills, and a culture that demands success at any costs.