• Hugh Lawrence

Skating on thin ice: doping young athletes and Russian rule breaking

I started this post to talk about the recent adverse analytical finding against the Russian Olympic Committee’s 15-year old skater, Kamila Valieva, which once again, surfaced the dirty not-so-secret of adult leaders in sport across the world, facilitating the abuse of young athletes in pursuit of international sporting success.


To be clear, the International Testing Agency (ITA) confirmed that Valieva’s adverse finding (a sample containing trimetazidine) occurred during the 2022 Russian Figure Skating Championships in Saint Petersburg on December 25. The WADA-accredited laboratory in Stockholm confirmed the finding on 8 February, the day after the ROC figure skating had won team gold medals in Beijing.


At this point I was about to point out that Russia has form. The Maclean report revealed breath-taking involvement of the Russian government to facilitated doping at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The subsequent ban on Russia at the following Olympiads was intended to put Russia on notice. How did that work out? The behaviour of Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze after her athlete’s failure in the final will be used for years to come in coaching workshops as an object lesson in undesirable youth coaching behaviour. Just to be clear, 15 years of age is still a youth category in most sports – before the under 19 or under 20 categories.


Upon announcement of the adverse finding, the Russian government sprang to her defence. Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin – “….. it is doubly convincing she is innocent.” On 14 August 2021, Russian News Agency TASS quoted Matytsin, “ We are waging a resolute fight against the doping abuse in sports," he stated. "I am sure that if this case turns out to be true, it will be a singular case."


Others have written extensively on this case. So I wanted to explore the ‘why did this happen?’ question. Despite supposedly stronger rules, despite bans, the Russian system appears not to care and appears to think that breaking rules is one thing, but equating that to doing wrong is entirely another. A shameless system that appears not to care what the rest of the world thinks. BUT…. surely the solution is to keep Russia in the tent to be part of the solution. Better in the tent than out!


Many have argued that doping in Russia is a State-led conspiracy. But by definition conspiracies are secret! …….. Then my writing paused as Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s border, and after weeks of denying invasion plans – it invaded. No conspiracy here. In fact, a massive rules breach and a government that appears not to care what others think. Crucially, we need to understand that Russia’s Olympic team is an expression of the State (see my last post on politics and sport).


To understand Russia’s approach to the doping rules, we need to try and look at the world through Russian eyes. Not to excuse its behaviour, but to understand its ‘why?’ Put simply (perhaps overly so), the Russian government leadership does not think that it has a stake in following rules others have set. Rules that are perceived as set by the liberal west and clearly (in Russia’s eyes), biased against Russia: a politically useful narrative within Russia.


So back to my idealised ‘Russia in the tent rather than outside’. At this stage in history, any sense that Russia might compromise or collaborate seems unlikely. Banning Russia from the Olympics hasn’t worked out so well – who really believes representing the Russian Olympic Committee isn’t representing Russia? Deterrence through an outright ban on Russian participation in global sport seems beyond the wit of international federations.


How the Ukraine crisis plays out is important. An elegant mix of deterrence, meaningful punishment must be part of the calculus, but in the end, what are the incentives on Russia to change? Back to Valieva. Like the US basketball system, the loss of one star simply opens the door for another to step through.


Philosopher H L A Hart argued that the main function of the law is to guide our conduct. If the rules of sport are to have legal strength, they too must guide conduct. St Thomas Aquinas had the idea of promoting the common good by doing good and avoiding evil. How’s that working out for us?





(Photo source: Valeriy Sharufilin)

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