Thomas Bach criticizes Kamila Valieva’s entourage after a “disturbing” skate

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Thomas Bach began his remarks on Beijing 2022 in exactly the way one would expect. But then he took a sharp turn

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BEIJING — Thomas Bach began his remarks on Beijing 2022 in exactly the way one would expect. He talked about the athletes who supported their rivals in moments of failure, and the Russian and Ukrainian medalists who kissed on the podium. Triumph of the Olympic spirit and all that.

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But then the president of the International Olympic Committee took a sharp turn. He brought up the case of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who had a disastrous free skate the night before and went from gold medal favorite to fourth place and a whole lot of tears.

Bach, always a smooth talker, knew there would be questions about Valieva at this press conference, her first of these Olympic Games. Why was the 15-year-old allowed to compete? How did the IOC let Russia’s anti-doping agency simply rescind her suspension after testing positive for a banned substance, and essentially throw this child into the middle of a gigantic international sports scandal? More simply: what did he feel watching the poor kid crack?

He decided to go out first. In his prepared remarks, Bach brought up the case of Valieva. “I have to say I was very, very disturbed,” he said. “To see her there struggling on the ice, it would feel like it’s a huge mental stress, and maybe she would have preferred to leave the ice.”

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He hadn’t finished. Bach also noted the behavior of those around Valieva. Her trainer, Eteri Tutberidze, appeared to berate her as soon as she finished her routine, asking her why she had given up after her first missed jump.

Bach described “what seemed like enormous coldness” in the response. “It was scary,” said the IOC President.

He still hadn’t finished. Bach then described reading the coverage of the event in the morning and how silver medalist Alexandra Trusova broke down and said she wanted to quit skating. “I hate this sport. I will never skate again. Never,” said the 17-year-old, who is also coached by Tutberidze.

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Bach said this confirmed his concerns about those around young skaters.

“All of this doesn’t give me much confidence with Kamila’s entourage,” Bach said.

It was all quite strange. Just a few days ago, the IOC’s official position on the Valieva controversy was worded with great care and legalese. After it was discovered, a day after the Russians won a gold medal in the team event, that she had tested positive for a heart drug banned in late December, the IOC insisted that the doping process had to be followed, even though he appealed the lifting of his suspension by the Russian authorities. When the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Valieva should be allowed to compete – essentially saying there was no time to hear her case in full before the start of the skating event artistic in women’s singles earlier this week – the IOC accepted it. , signaling his displeasure only by saying that there would be no medal ceremony if Valieva won one in singles. Bach hadn’t specifically publicly commented on the case, but the IOC obviously wasn’t rushing to judge.

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Russia's Kamila Valieva reacts after competing in the women's free skating of the figure skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Russia’s Kamila Valieva reacts after competing in the women’s free skating of the figure skating event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Photo by MANAN VATSYAYANA /AFP/Getty Images

He was doing a lot of judging on Friday. When a Russian journalist asked if the IOC bore any responsibility for Valieva’s collapse, Bach replied that he could not ignore the fact that his test was positive.

“She had a drug in her body that shouldn’t have been in her body,” he said, explaining that in his experience, athletes rarely act alone in doping cases. In the young skater’s case, he said, “those who administered the drug should be held accountable.”

It was a striking response, in that it suggests Bach doesn’t seem inclined to believe there could be an innocent explanation for how a 15-year-old ended up with heart medication. which has stamina-boosting properties in its blood. He also pointed out that the IOC seems determined to punish Tutberidze or others close to Valieva, although Bach admitted they may not have legal means to do so. “We are not the police,” he said, correctly.

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The takeaway from all of this is that Bach is genuinely embarrassed by the way this story has unfolded, and if he was paying attention beforehand, the spectacle of a young teenager in crisis in front of a global audience was enough to trigger him. in public action. He said the IOC would reconsider two policies that contributed to the Valieva circus: the provision in the anti-doping rules that athletes under 16 receive special treatment, and whether there should be any restrictions on clearance minors to compete in a senior tournament. level event like the Olympics.

These things, Bach said, require “careful deliberation.”

Russian silver medalist Alexandra Trusova reacts on the podium in the women's figure skating event during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Russian silver medalist Alexandra Trusova reacts on the podium in the women’s figure skating event during the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV /AFP/Getty Images

IOC skeptics, myself included, will note that there was a lot of handwashing in Bach’s attempts at damage control. He insisted the IOC has only ever followed the rules, both in this specific case and in the biggest Russian doping scandal it has been trying to litigate in years. But few observers doubt that it might have been tougher after Russia in the big picture some time ago, and if it had been, Valieva’s story might never have turned out the way it did. she did it.

For now, however, Bach seems to want to be aggressive. While this is prompted by the tragedy of Valieva’s collapse, it’s not trivial. Russia, and Tutberidze in particular, built a very successful figure skating machine. The IOC, all these years later, is making noise to blow it up.

He has, of course, spoken tough before.

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