If this is the Olympic dream, we need a new one.
The world’s best athletes deserve more than being used for power.
These days I feel a bit like I’m walking in another reality. Figure skating is, for all intents and purposes, the same as it was a week ago. The same as it was last year. And the year before. But everyone is talking about it as if it’s different.
If you live under a rock and don’t pay attention to figure skating, you’re probably not reading this, but just in case, I’ll catch you up. On February 8, 2022 the results of a failed drug test came back for Russia’s star ladies skater Kamila Valieva. She’s 15 and she’s almost certainly taking a banned substance. She’s allowed to compete, but she’ll probably be stripped of any medal she wins. Her team will be investigated.
None of this changes anything, not really. The abusiveness of Valieva’s team, based at the Moscow school Sambo-70, has been an open secret (only a secret because nobody in power wanted to do anything about it) for half a decade. In the short program, judges still gave the same inexplicably high scores to the Russian teenagers they’ve been giving for years. The podium will likely be the same as it would have been without this breaking news.
Best case scenario, the investigation leads to Valieva’s team being banned, and Russia facing harsher drug punishments. Both of those would be major wins for athlete safety, and I hope with all my being they happen. But the rampant culture of abuse in the sport will still exist. Athletes still will be in danger.
The unavoidable problem with international sports is that they’re about power. And where there’s power, there’s abuse. There’s been all this talk lately from athletes, commentators, and fans alike about how this all tarnishes the sport of figure skating and the Olympic Movement. But the systems that govern both the sport and the Olympics were already irreparably tarnished.
Oh but Sammm the Olympics are about unity about the goodness of humanity. There’s a truce! You’re not supposed to fight wars during the Olympics. I mean sure, I’d take fighting wars with downhill skiing over drones any day. But the Olympics are not about unity. They are about power. Russia set up a new doping project to make sure they won as many medals in Sochi as possible. There’s a whole diplomatic protest happening at these Olympics because China wants to prove they’re powerful and the West wants to pretend like they won’t let them get away with ethnic cleansing. I appreciate the nice sentiments, but stop falling for the lies.
Athletes are just pawns in the power grab. And that’s not me disrespecting them. I think that all of the figure skating competitors, and athletes of all sports, are beyond incredible. I could never do what they do. I respect their Olympic dreams. But I also think that they (and all of us) were sold dreams that don’t exist, and we’re doing all of us a major disservice to pretend like this is the best humanity has to offer.
I do think there is a lot of room for reform that would make the governing structures of figure skating much safer. But, the more I think about what it would take to make those reforms happen, the more I think the current system is unsalvageable. For the sport to be one actually worthy of our love —and, more importantly, worthy of the hard work and love of the athletes— it needs to free itself from borders.
Figure skating should not be governed by a consortium of nations. With international politics involved, it’s impossible to separate the inherent value of the individual athlete’s performance, from a nation’s desire to acquire medals and play power games. It’s the same with the International Olympic Committee. We need fully independent governing bodies. Ones dedicated to the safety and success of the athletes. Not their nations.
It’s ok to watch the Olympics. It’s ok to love figure skating. But when you really think about it, it’s the athletes you’re watching and loving. We can destroy the toxic systems and still keep that beating heart of them. In fact, I think we have to. Because the sport as it is? The Olympics as they are? I’m really starting to hate them.