Before last night, if you had told me that a figure skater in an Olympic final was going to perform to “I Wanna Be Your Dog” by the Stooges, I wouldn’t have believed you. (More on the song choice below.) If you had further told me that that same figure skater would win silver and then burst into a teary, screaming tirade seemingly directed at her coach, but also maybe her teammate, and also maybe the entire sport of figure skating, well……
But of course, both of these things happened. Alexandra Trusova put together an impressive, athletic, and powerful routine, only to be upstaged by an even better performance by her teammate, gold medal winner Anna Shcherbakova. They had competed back to back, followed by a third teammate, Kamila Valieva, who was the gold medal favorite leading up to the games. During the team competition–a seemingly distant week ago– American commentator (and former gold medalist) Tara Lipinski had called Valieva the greatest athlete the sport had ever seen. But Valieva faltered in the final routine of the night. As her score came up, the ensuing moments were absolutely surreal. Valieva in tears, receiving something in between support and consternation from her coach. A few feet away, Trusova, screaming in Russian, with American Johnny Weir admirably attempting to translate on the US broadcast. Apart from her teammates, poor Scherbakova, alone in her moment of Olympic glory, seemingly unsure of what she was supposed to do. Kaori Sakamoto, the bronze medalist from Japan, overwhelmed by the emotion of her fine performance and unexpected place on the podium. All of this played out over several minutes, made somewhat more weird by the blaring sounds of Adele and Kelly Clarkson still being pumped into a mostly empty arena.
We need some context here, of course. 10 days ago, most of us had never heard of Valieva, a young woman who will, at best, now be synonymous with the dark side of the Olympics for years to come. After an insane performance in the team event, the 15 year old found herself the heart of a scandal for a positive doping test dating back to December. She’s allegedly tested positive for an angina medication that could offer her advantages in blood-flow, endurance, that sort of thing. She’s suggested that she accidentally took her grandfather’s medication, which seems…unlikely. If you haven’t been keeping up with the situation, Juliet Macur summarizes things very nicely in her recap of the final and the events leading up to it for the New York Times.
Doping, of course, is an ethical issue. (Here’s something I previously wrote on the subject) But doping is also a matter of sport governance and this moment has really highlighted just how absurd international sport governance can be. At the heart of the controversy is that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) allowed Valieva to keep skating while her appeal is under review, despite opposition from the IOC, the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) and FISA (the international skating federation). I tend to hold off on my comments until matters such as this one are fully resolved, but here are a few thoughts.
- I see this is a wonderful demonstration of the self-legitimizing international sport governance apparatus. We have the CAS and WADA (amongst other bodies) who are nominally “independent” organizations. Without getting too mired in structural details, I would argue that it is fair to think of these as arms of the IOC. Their existence simply doesn’t make sense without the IOC. Thus, moments such as this one, where these organizations are at odds should not be taken as a demonstration of the legitimacy or independence of the CAS, but rather a quasi-serious performance for the public and sports world. By allowing for some tension, we can buy in to the idea that these organizations operate on actual principles, rather than a coordinated effort to manage world sport in a pretend-democratic manner. They need these occasions to point to, to say: hey, see, we disagree, we’re not just a puppet para-global regime. Much like the occasional lowering of the hammer by the NCAA that serves to remind us that “amateurism,” etc. actually matter, this is mostly a charade, with some actual consequences that the system can tolerate. If this makes me sound like I’m writing with a tin-foil hat on, so be it.
- Do I think Valieva is guilty of doping? I’ll go 25/75 here. 25% bad test or contamination, 75% doping, although I’d 100% believe that she could have been unaware of it. The possibility of coaches, team doctors, etc. giving her banned substances as part of a dietary or “supplement” regimen is extremely high here. She is an amazing athlete and I am heartbroken for her. No matter what the appeals process and investigations find, she will forever be a tainted name in the sport. Horrible.
- #2 is particularly galling, and not just because we’re talking about a literal child. Valieva, nor any of the Russian athletes, should not be competing at all. Only the Rube Goldberg device that is global sport governance (see above) could come up with a scenario like the one we’ve been in for the last two Olympics: banning “Russia” for state sponsored doping, while allowing athletes to compete as the “Russian Olympic Committee,” conveniently coached, supported, and managed, by…Russia. I understand the emotional impulse that banning athletes punishes them unfairly for the actions of their state or Olympic committee, but here we are. It would be unfair to the athletes, but maybe in that unfairness, the athletes and citizens of a banned country would demand meaningful change and accountability? That sounds more like the Olympic spirit than whatever we have going on here.
- Speaking of Russian coaching, the aforementioned coach, Eteri Tutberidze is a villainous figure straight out of the American Cold War imagination. She could have served in Ivan Drago’s corner. Here’s a good article on her troubled history and, more broadly, some of the major issues plaguing modern figure skating.
- I’m an American and you can fairly say I’m presenting a biased perspective. So, let’s just openly acknowledge that American athletes and teams are no strangers to doping scandals. If we appear to be more clean as a sporting “nation” that’s in part because the USOC and our sporting federations are not embedded in our government. Without getting too mired in the details, this is relatively unique; while Olympic committees and federations in the rest of the world are *technically* independent of their governments, it’s effectively an open secret that they are often not. Finally, we almost have to remember that our views on doping and governance are culturally conditioned. There are plenty of people in the world who believe some combination of the following: that the US controls and pressures the various bodies that run world sport, that American doping is too technologically advanced for current testing protocols, and/or that doping is maybe not so bad and might even be a requirement in the pursuit of human potential. These views are not without some merit.
- Alright, so what about “I Wanna Be Your Dog”??? Technically, the version used in the performance wasn’t the Stooges’, but a cover from the Cruella soundtrack. But it’s a faithful rendition Trusova’s routine was loosely Cruella-themed and included another song from the soundtrack. Sonically, I actually thought it was a great choice that aligned with her aggressive, attacking style on the ice. The one-note piano “riff” throughout the song is so insistent, so urgent, so menacing, much like Trusova’s skating. But it was still shocking to hear the fuzzed-out, proto-punk song featured in the sport. And maybe, lyrically at least, a song that touches on drug use and the submissive side of S&M is maybe a little too on-the-nose for a Russian figure skater?