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IOC's Thomas Bach 'disturbed' by treatment of Valieva, but damage was already done

·Columnist
·5 min read
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IOC President Thomas Bach watched the women’s individual figure skating competition on television Thursday and reacted like much of the world.

With shock. With concern. With plenty of rage.

A “very sad story,” he said of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva. The 15-year-old gold medal favorite, who had tested positive for a banned substance yet was cleared to compete anyway, crumbled under the enormous pressure. She finished fourth before breaking down emotionally.

“I was very, very disturbed,” Bach said.

Bach tore into the coaches, officials and doctors surrounding Valieva — her so-called “entourage” in Olympic parlance — and promised an inquiry into their behavior.

“[I hope] the people who are responsible for this, that they will be held responsible for this in the right way,” Bach said. “And when I say, ‘in the right way,’ [I mean] in the strongest possible way."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks to the media during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on February 18, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach speaks to the media during the 2022 Winter Olympic Games on February 18, 2022 in Beijing, China. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

Valieva tested positive for a heart medication that is on the World Anti-Doping Association’s banned substance list. The sophistication of the drug suggests that it came from adults, not a teen who spends her life in a controlled atmosphere of the Figure Skating Federation of Russia.

“Doping very rarely happens alone by the athletes,” Bach said. “You always have an entourage.

“[There is] a minor, a 15-year-old girl, who obviously has a drug in her body which should not be in her body,” Bach continued. “And the ones who have administered this drug in her body, these are the ones who are guilty.”

At the conclusion of Valieva’s disappointing, nerve-wracked performance, her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, was seen harshly criticizing her.

“Why did you let it go?” Tutberidze said in Russian. “Explain to me, why? Why did you stop fighting? You let it go after that axel. Why?”

The sobbing, heaving Valieva appeared to receive little support.

“When afterward, I saw how she was received by her closest entourage, with what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling,” Bach said. “To see this, rather [than] giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her?

“You could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance and if you were interpreting the body language of them, it got even worse,” Bach said. “[There] was even some kind of dismissive gestures.”

Bach said the scene stuck with him all night as he “pondered” how a coach “can be so cold to your athlete.” He later read of further complaints within the team.

“I am afraid this impression that I had last night was not the wrong one,” Bach said. “All of this does not give me much confidence in this closest entourage of Kamila. Neither with regard to what had happened in the past nor as far as it concerns the future.

“How to deal, how to address, how to treat a minor athlete at the age of 15 under such an obvious mental stress?” he continued. “I can only wish for her [to have] the support of her family. The support of her friends. And the support of her people to help her over this extremely difficult situation.”

Bach isn’t wrong about any of this. He is late to it though.

The situation involving Valieva and the failed drug test was a blaring alarm that this teenager was surrounded by people without her best interest at heart. To dope a child is, by definition, child abuse.

Yet the IOC policy is to outsource its disciplinary system when it comes to doping to a series of third party anti-doping agencies and courts. It was that system that allowed her to continue to compete despite the positive test and turned the girl into an Olympic villain with no one around her that she could trust.

“This pressure, beyond my imagination,” Bach said. “In particular for a girl of 15 years old.”

Reporters asked for a week if the IOC had been in direct contact with Valieva and questioned why she had to stay in the custody of her abusers.

Bach would only say that the IOC argued to the Court of Arbitration for Sport that Valieva should be provisionally suspended for the Olympics only to have the panel rule she could continue.

“We went to court, we did not want her to participate, and we lost the court case,” Bach said. “We have to respect the rule of law.”

In truth, the system is a circle of alphabet organizations who have mostly blamed each other for failing in this case. The IOC could have reworked this years ago.

“There are issues to be addressed,” Bach acknowledged.

That would include punishing, as best the IOC can, the entourages. And that should also include the countries themselves. Russia was caught with operating a massive state-run doping operation around the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Yet the IOC only technically banned the country from participating in the Olympics. The same coaches, administrators and system continued under the name “Russian Olympic Committee.”

Nothing changed.

Nothing likely will, either.

Bach spoke with great purpose and great length but talk is talk. The long answers also allowed him to avoid any questions during an hour-long news conference about Chinese human rights concerns, the treatment of the Uyghur ethic minority population or his work as a propaganda pawn in the case of Peng Shaui.

By Beijing 2022 standards, the doping and abuse of a 15-year-old girl was a preferred narrative.

This is the Olympics that Bach, who has been president nearly a decade, has built. This is it. He just happened to see it in all its depravity on his television Thursday.

He was disgusted at what he saw. Join the club.