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Well, they did it again. Fouled another Olympic Games. Soiled another festival of sport.
And, in many ways, it could not happen to a nicer chap. Thomas Bach, the IOC president, and Russia deserve each other. He deserves to have another Games, and with it his legacy, tainted. They deserve to have their every achievement marked with the asterisk of suspicion.
When Kamila Valieva skates today and on Thursday, a giant cloud of mistrust, a question mark carved in ice, will accompany each graceful move. Is she a cheat or, more pertinently, has she been corrupted at 15 by the Russian system?
This is now the biggest talking point of this Games. Valieva may be one of the great talents of this, or any other generation, but she cannot escape the taint of the Russian regime.
Kamila Valieva is able to continue at the Winter Olympics after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled the Russian should not be provisionally banned for a failed drugs test
That Bach has bent over backwards to return Russia to the Olympics, after all the evidence of a doping programme emanating from the heart of government, affords this narrative a sad and sorry justice.
Bach deserves his humiliation, his betrayal, for ushering corruption in through the front door, again. He has let Russia get away with it, time after time, so is it any wonder if they treat his organisation with utter contempt?
Figure skating is a discipline that transcends conventional sport. It takes the Olympics to a different audience, one that does not connect with ski jumpers, snowboarders or traditional feats of athleticism.
Yet there will be no medal ceremony for the team event in Beijing, none for the women’s individual either, if Valieva performs as expected. A positive test for the banned substance trimetazidine recorded on Christmas Day continues to hang over her and the IOC do not want to risk adorning a competitor with a gold medal, only for her to be confirmed as a cheat.
It complicates matters that as a child, equal suspicion and responsibility falls on her entourage, and the Russian Anti-Doping Agency for conveniently reversing her suspension, allowing Valieva to thrive in Beijing.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport decision that ‘exceptional circumstances’ keep Valieva in the competition has permitted Russia to glory in victory and its messengers to speak of justice, as if the positive test has been eradicated. It hasn’t.
Valieva may yet be disqualified. Russia could be excluded from future Olympics. For now, however, the very people that might have fed her trimetazidine can play the wounded innocents.
It is a tawdry spectacle, as the authorities again tiptoe around a sporting regime that besmirches all it touches.
The coach of Russia’s gold medal-winning cross-country skiers served a two-year ban for being ‘involved in doping cases’. Bronze medal winning biathlete Alexander Loginov was previously banned for two years for EPO use.
In 2018, Russia’s bobsleigh team lost Nadezhda Sergeeva for eight months after another positive trimetazidine test. She came 10th in the monobob event in Beijing and will now compete in the two-woman bobsleigh.
Valieva’s continued participation has increased pressure on IOC president Thomas Bach
Is trimetazidine the new meldonium, another banned drug which countered heart conditions and proved very popular among otherwise healthy Russian athletes – such as Maria Sharapova (or the curler Aleksandr Krushelnitsky, freshly returned from a four-year ban and vowing to continue).
‘Kamila doesn’t touch anything forbidden in life,’ said Valieva’s choreographer, Alexei Zheleznyakov. ‘With her talent it’s not necessary.’ Yet isn’t that the point with systematic doping? It hates talent. It doesn’t trust talent. It thinks talent needs a bump.
On October 22, 2002, Professor Gianmartino Benzi, a pharmacological expert from the University of Pavia and his assistant Adriana Ceci, gave evidence to a hearing investigating doping at the Italian football club, Juventus.
They described Juventus as running a training ground with a pharmacy conducive to the facilities of a small to medium-sized hospital.
‘Either the players were always sick or they took drugs without justification and going beyond the therapeutic field to improve performance,’ said Benzi.
One of the drugs routinely prescribed was an anti-depressant. These were players at the peak of their careers playing for one of the best clubs in Europe. What exactly did they all have to be depressed about? Did Valieva need trimetazidine to improve her performance? Probably not. Was she given trimetazidine because that is the way Russian support staff are conditioned to operate? That is most definitely the suspicion.
Maria Sharapova at a press conference in 2016 after she had tested positive for meldonium
The CAS verdict claimed that removing Valieva from competition in Beijing could do her ‘irreparable harm’.
‘The athlete should benefit from the following exceptional circumstances: she is under 16 and a protected person under the WADA code,’ CAS director-general Matthieu Reeb explained.
Yet what of the clean athletes denied a medal or a podium ceremony? Aren’t they suffering irreparable harm, too? And this isn’t just about a 15-year-old athlete. Valieva’s entourage, the very people who may have facilitated this dreadful abuse, also sail on.
‘Everyone is happy today,’ announced Zheleznyakov, responding to the CAS decision. ‘Come on, our girl, fly, angel, fly.’ Yet that isn’t how ‘everyone’ feels at all. Russia and Russians may be lapping this up but, beyond, there is disgust. Not at a 15-year-old, but at what she may have been manipulated to represent.
Tara Lipinski, Olympic gold medallist in 1998, called the reinstatement ‘a permanent scar on our sport’.
Sarah Hirshland, president of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee summed it up. ‘Athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field,’ she said.
‘Unfortunately, that right is being denied. This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.’
Yet it is also what the IOC, and their president had coming. They could have backed clean sport, they could have embraced fairness. Instead, they chose this. The playing fields of oppressors, populated and danced on by cheats.
This is your Olympics, Mr Bach. This is your bequest. Enjoy it. Enjoy the choices you have made.
EDDIE’S FAILURE IS MAGNIFIED
So Scotland are not, after all, on the way to a first Grand Slam since 1990.
Scotland travelled to Cardiff and lost to a Wales team who were overwhelmed by Ireland just seven days previously. And Ireland were promptly beaten by France.
So, for all the positivity around England’s 33-0 win in Rome against a team that probably doesn’t deserve a berth in the Six Nations, the big takeaway from the weekend’s rugby action was still how badly Eddie Jones and England blew it at Murrayfield.
THIS PENALTY IS PROOF RULE-MAKERS HAVE MESSED UP THE GAME
There were three major handball calls in two of the matches I watched over the weekend, all going against what seemed fair.
Craig Dawson’s late equaliser for West Ham against Leicester came off the top of his arm and shouldn’t have been allowed.
Meanwhile, the two penalties awarded in the Club World Cup – most certainly the one that went against Palmeiras and won the game for Chelsea – appeared entirely accidental and unavoidable, yet both were given.
Football’s laws used to be just and simple to understand. Modern rule-makers have really messed up the game.
The penalty awarded to Chelsea (pictured) in the Club World Cup final was totally accidental
ZHU’S BEIJING FLOP SHOWS DANGER OF NATIONALITY SWITCH
Beverly Zhu was born in Westwood, California and raised on America’s west coast.
A talented skater and winner of the novice title at the United States National Championships in 2018, she conveniently switched nationality to China four years prior to the Olympics and became Zhu Yi. Then she competed at the Beijing Games, fell twice, came last and was disowned by all sides.
Americans view her as a traitor and now she is considered an imposter in China, critics claiming she took the place of a more deserving homegrown skater because her father is an important scientist.
Zhu isn’t even fluent in Mandarin, which has caused offence.
Zhu Yi, formerly Beverly Zhu, was in tears after she fell twice in the women’s team free skate
We can wonder why it is only Zhu and freestyle skier Eileen Gu – who also switched from America to China in the build-up to Beijing – who are being singled out in this way, when China’s men’s ice hockey team has players like Jake Chelios and Jeremy Smith, or Jie Ke Kai Liao Si and Jie Rui Mi Shi Mi Si as they are now known.
But the fact remains international sport is supposed to be the best of yours versus the best of theirs. Changing nationality to compete for the hosts – with all the added financial gain success will bring – is considered self-serving.
Zhu has a chance to redeem that performance this week but the pressure may be too much. She was in tears by the end of her first, doomed, routine – perhaps afraid of slipping into statelessness which, in sport, is close to nowhere.
INFANTINO TRIP IS PATHETIC
Apparently, Football Association chair Debbie Hewitt and chief executive Mark Bullingham made a 24-hour round trip to Abu Dhabi to tell FIFA president Gianni Infantino personally that Great Britain and Ireland would make no bid to host the 2030 World Cup.
Why debase ourselves before that creep? We think it earns us his favour. It’s pathetic.
CAT IN HELL’S CHANCE FANS TURN ON ZOUMA
We hear what we want to hear sometimes. Reports of Kurt Zouma being booed by his own fans when West Ham played Watford last week were said to be exaggerated by those in the home crowd.
It was the away end that turned on him, not the locals. So is anyone really surprised that there were Zouma songs and related antics when West Ham travelled away to Leicester on Sunday?
Fans will always back their club and their player, particularly when the criticism is so strong and widespread. They will also delight in opposing the voices from outside the club, even at the risk of causing offence. That’s why it will take a while for Tottenham fans to stop singing about ‘Yids’ too. What they can no longer justify, however, is reclamation on the Jewish community’s behalf.
Kurt Zouma songs will not go away any time soon after a video emerged of him kicking his cat
Could someone please tell the BBC that no one gives a monkey’s about cross-country skiing? It’s as if they want people to watch ITV.
David Beckham’s London townhouse is in need of structural repair and an area with an outside terrace has already been sealed off.
Given some of son Brooklyn’s culinary creations on his YouTube channel maybe Becks could make a call. He’d save a fortune in cement.
SEND STOOGES AND CHEERLEADERS PACKING SO REAL REPORTERS CAN DO THEIR JOB
On a tour of Lambeau Field, home to the Green Bay Packers, last year our guide pointed out the media facilities. Any show of partisan support, for either side, she said would be met with ejection. Amen to that.
There are too many cheerleaders in press boxes these days. Too many people who should just buy a ticket if they want to watch the match. Not journalists who have a team. Everyone, growing up, has a team. Having a team is fine – supporting one, from seats that are meant to be neutral, is wrong.
This then brings us to the next level: Russia’s rogue patriots – writers who operate as government stooges, the unofficial publicity arm for a corrupt, state-sponsored doping regime.
To ask Kamila Valieva whether she was clean, as my colleague Riath Al-Samarrai did last Friday, is entirely proper. She can’t be a big girl when she’s winning gold medals and a little girl in need of protection when she fails a drugs test. Equally, it gives her the chance to tell her story, to state her case.
Valieva was walking through the mixed zone, the area where journalists and athletes pass to conduct interviews. It wasn’t as if she was pursued down the street or ambushed at her hotel. Riath didn’t get an answer.
Russian journalists denounced a Sportsmail reporter for questioning 15-year-old skater Valieva
What he did get was five or more Russian journalists in his face, angrily confronting him for doing his job, filming him, taking photographs of his accreditation.
His details then got posted on social media, meaning he became the target of Russian troll farms – no photograph, about three followers, generic names – ensuring enough fuss that real people piled in. The same people, no doubt, that have issued death threats to the excellent team at Inside the Games, the website that broke the initial story of Valieva’s positive test. Again, a perfectly legitimate revelation.
Valieva would have been the face of this Olympics, the first female skater to perform a successful quadruple jump. She was a star. News of her positive test was a brilliant exclusive. It’s what journalism is about.
But the journalists who attempted to intimidate Riath aren’t journalists. They’re cheerleaders and apologists. They toe the party line.
Some on social media called for Riath to lose his accreditation. If the IOC had a spine it would be those who surrounded him and tried to prevent him doing his job, who have no place in the press area. The Packers have it right. Fans buy tickets, journalists ask questions and those who fail drug tests need to answer them.