Five-ring Circus

The United States Is an Olympics Coward

It keeps saying it’s powerless to change the Games. It’s anything but.

Diptych of Kamila Valieva on ice and Sha’Carri Richardson on a track, both standing with their hands on their hips
Kamila Valieva and Sha’Carri Richardson. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dimitris Isevidis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images and Jorge Luis Alvarez Pupo/Getty Images.

The biggest controversy of the 2022 Winter Olympics is now, in some ways, a moot point. Gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva, who was allowed to compete in Beijing despite testing positive for a banned substance in December, finished a surprising fourth in the women’s figure skating competition on Thursday. Given that she didn’t win an individual medal, the 15-year-old Russian won’t have one revoked after the Games, though it’s unclear what might happen to the gold she won in the team event.

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In another sense, though, the Valieva controversy has permanently stained these Olympics. As Chris Schleicher wrote in Slate, Thursday’s figure skating competition ended with one of the most discomfiting scenes in the history of international sports, with two Russian skaters in tears for two very different reasons, a gold medalist left alone and forlorn clutching a teddy bear, and a coach publicly criticizing her star athlete—a child—for having done such a bad job. This devastating climax to Beijing’s highest-profile event was an embarrassment to the Olympics—and to all of the entities, including the United States, whose actions and inaction allowed it to happen.

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In a press conference Friday that felt alternately surprising and predictable, International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach expressed shock over the day’s events. “I must say I was very, very disturbed yesterday when I watched the competition on TV. I know from my athlete’s time a little bit about pressure, but this pressure is beyond my imagination, and in particular for a girl of 15 years,” said Bach. “When I afterwards saw how she was received by her close entourage, with such, what appeared to be a tremendous coldness. It was chilling to see this.”

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That was the surprising part: the fact that Bach so directly acknowledged the awfulness. The predictable part came when he insisted that there was very little he could have done about Valieva’s presence on the ice and the catastrophe that followed. “We challenged this decision. We went to court. We did not want her to participate and we lost the court case. We have had to respect the rule of law. Because if we are not respecting it, if we are abandoning the rule of law, there is no international sports anymore. We had to accept this,” Bach said, with respect to the Court of Arbitration for Sport upholding the Russian Anti-Doping Agency’s decision to lift Valieva’s provisional suspension. As for the behavior of Valieva’s coach and the other people around her: “We have extremely limited means to address it,” Bach said. “We are not the police; we cannot interrogate and have a formal prosecution procedure, and our sanctions are extremely limited.”

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The joke’s on you, I guess, if you thought that the International Olympic Committee might have some control over the Olympics, or that its president might have any more agency than some random schmuck watching on television. If the Valieva saga has shown us anything, it’s that, when it comes to international sport, everything is always somebody else’s fault. The Olympics are organized by the IOC, which in turn delegates responsibilities to other organizations: the international sporting federations that coordinate and oversee individual sports around the world; the national Olympic committees that oversee each nation’s entries into the Games; the national sporting federations, such as U.S. Ski & Snowboard, that supervise a sport within national boundaries. The Olympics wouldn’t happen if the IOC didn’t delegate. At the same time, a lack of centralized control makes it easy to pass the buck.

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In a tweet late Thursday evening, USA Today’s Tom Schad aptly summarized the past week’s buck-passing:

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Schad’s post reads like the call for the world’s most craven square dance. There is a cruelty in this systemic evasion of responsibility, a cruelty that was felt this week by the people who least deserved it: by Valieva herself, a 15-year-old girl, who may have taken a banned substance but who should not be entirely blamed given her age and the brutal environment in which she’s been cultivated; by Valieva’s competitors, who were made to compete, in an environment of intensely heightened scrutiny, against someone whom they had every reason to believe had broken a rule by which the rest of them had to abide. This is a regime that leaves a child crying on the ice in what is likely to be her only Olympics appearance, while the coach who trained her and scolded her gets to come back the next day, standing beside athletes from a nation that has systemically gamed the international anti-doping system while evading any meaningful consequences.

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The only people who are served by these rules are the people who run international sport—a man like Thomas Bach, who can cite an alphabet soup of international compacts and subsidiary organizations as proof that the Valieva tragedy isn’t his fault. They are served insofar as they get to take credit for the good things about the Olympics while deflecting blame for all of the bad things. The rules allow them to keep pretending that the Olympics can change the world, while insisting that the world cannot change the Olympics.

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The hideous undercurrents of the Beijing Games, from Xi Jinping’s provocation of the international human rights community at the opening ceremony to the almost comically bleak arc of Valieva’s story, make these affectations of disempowerment unconscionable. And it’s not just the international sporteaucrats who are to blame. It’s just as unconscionable for the United States to continue to pretend that it, too, is powerless to force the Olympics to change its ways.

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The U.S. has not been cited as one of the culpable parties in the Valieva affair, and it isn’t, at least not directly. The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee released a statement decrying the decision to allow the Russian skater to compete, which is pretty much their go-to move. When it comes to the Olympics, the U.S. is all talk and no action.

The Biden administration’s impotent “diplomatic boycott” of the Winter Olympics, in which official U.S. government representatives didn’t come but hundreds of athletes and NBC’s television cameras still did, is a perfect symbol of America’s failure to lead. If the U.S. thought China’s human rights situation was bad enough to warrant a diplomatic boycott, then it should have pulled Team USA out of the Beijing Games entirely—even if it meant depriving American athletes of the chance to compete on the world’s most prominent stage and fulfill their Olympic dreams. That’s not something to take lightly. But, you know, neither is the systematic repression of the Uyghurs. An American boycott would have been a strong move, something that might have prompted other countries to follow suit, and certainly something that the IOC would have had to address. Instead, the U.S. settled for saying a few strong words, and letting bad actors benefit as the Games went on as usual.

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I’ve been thinking this week about one of the most glaring cases of American Olympic do-nothingism: the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, the 21-year-old American sprinter who, last June, tested positive for marijuana after winning the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Track and Field Trials in Oregon. No matter that recreational marijuana consumption is legal in Oregon for people 21 and over; under the World Anti-Doping Code, marijuana is classified as a “substance of abuse,” and athletes who test positive during competition are subject to a three-month suspension, which can be reduced to one month if they agree to participate in a treatment program. Richardson, who said she smoked marijuana after learning of the death of her biological mother, agreed to get treatment. She said, “I want to take responsibility for my actions. … I’m not looking for an excuse.” For Richardson, what taking responsibility looked like was accepting that monthlong suspension, imposed by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

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Richardson did not appeal her suspension to USADA, and that monthlong ban carried into the Tokyo Olympics. The sprinter, a medal favorite, did not go to the Games. Kamila Valieva, meanwhile, immediately appealed her suspension to the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, which lifted it within 24 hours, thus allowing her to continue to compete. That’s not at all how these cases are supposed to work, and that’s certainly not what happened in Richardson’s case. And to be clear, it’s not Richardson’s fault that she didn’t appeal—all of the parties involved in her case were adamant that their hands were tied and there was nothing they could do.

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“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her,” said USADA’s CEO, Travis Tygart. He also said that “while the U.S. government has a seat at the table to provide feedback, and will continue to speak up for athletes, we are ultimately bound to the WADA rules.”

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I don’t find that argument convincing, just as I’m unconvinced by Tygart’s claim that following the rules worked to Richardson’s benefit. “Even if we just ignored the rules, which would make us non-compliant and in violation of our USOPC and federal government agreements, WADA and World Athletics could appeal our decision. In the event of an appeal, Sha’Carri certainly would not receive less than the minimum one-month sanction, and she might receive more,” he said.

Listen to what Tygart is saying here: This rule doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t serve Sha’Carri Richardson or anyone else. But if we fight it—because she did nothing wrong and we want to protect her opportunity to compete in the showcase event she’s been training for her whole life—then various organizations will tell us that’s not OK. So, because we’re honorable and law-abiding, we’re not going to try. Sorry!

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This does not strike me as a moral stance or a courageous one. Every Olympics-adjacent regulatory body is perpetually eager to insist that there’s nothing they can do about rules that create unfair outcomes. But that can’t be true, especially with regard to the United States, the only entity in the world that arguably has the power to force the hand of the Olympic movement.

The influence the U.S. exerts over the Olympics is greater than that of any other country, by an order of magnitude. The billions of dollars that NBC pays to broadcast the Olympics is what makes them the Olympics, instead of just some random overseas sports carnival that nobody cares about. The WADA ban on marijuana is stupid, and Richardson isn’t the only U.S. athlete who got caught up in it last year: Swimmer Tate Jackson and sprinter Kahmari Montgomery also accepted one-month marijuana suspensions. The U.S. could have and should have pushed back. They would have held the moral high ground by doing so, and they might have forced WADA and the IOC to back down. That’s basically what Russia did while holding no moral ground at all. Instead, the U.S. did what it always does: threw up its hands, disclaimed responsibility, and let the athlete suffer the consequences.

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Who, in the end, is served by the Olympics’ regulatory alphabet soup? Not Sha’Carri Richardson, who wondered this week why Kamila Valieva was allowed to skate when she wasn’t allowed to run. Not Valieva, who on Thursday surely ended up suffering the “irreparable harm” that the CAS was so intent to have her avoid. Not Valieva’s teammates or competitors, whose moments in the Olympic spotlight were sullied by a shitshow that was not of their own making. The only people served are the sporting community’s systemic malefactors—who have gotten very good at driving trucks through these regulatory loopholes—and puffed-up bigwigs like Bach himself, who can shake his head sadly and call it a terrible thing when those trucks end up destroying everything in their path. It was not America’s responsibility to intervene in the Valieva saga. But the U.S. does now have an opportunity, and perhaps even the obligation, to show the moral leadership that it has heretofore abdicated and use its financial power and its bully pulpit to force an Olympic reckoning.

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The “rule of law” cited by Bach failed in Beijing. The codes and federations that govern international sport are consensual fictions that fall apart as soon as any given party operates under the assumption that they aren’t real. Bad actors will always thrive in a byzantine system where it’s easier for the people in power to claim that someone else bears responsibility for fixing problems and righting wrongs. The United States can no longer turn away. It holds more power than any other national entity involved, and it needs to do something to force the change that the IOC cannot or will not force on its own. If it doesn’t, the Games will go on as normal. And as we’ve seen in Beijing, that’s nothing to celebrate.

Slate intern Sarah Braner contributed reporting for this article.

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