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‘People Don’t Believe What They See’ – Olympic Games’ credibility damaged by Russian doping scandal

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencing champion, likes to wield what he describes as the power of the Games like it’s Excalibur.

In closing the Beijing Olympics at National Stadium Sunday, Bach again pulled his rhetorical sword out its sheath.

“This unifying power of the Olympic Games is stronger than the forces that want to divide us: you give peace a chance,” Bach said in his closing address. “May the political leaders around the world be inspired by your example of solidarity and peace.”

As Bach spoke China, the Games’ host nation was, according to several human rights groups, committing atrocities against an ethnic minority group and suppressing political dissent in Hong Kong, while Russia was amassing troops on its border with Ukraine.

Bach made a final reference to the Beijing Games, “this unforgettable Olympic experience,” and then the flame was extinguished.

A larger fire could prove much harder for Bach and the IOC to put out.

Games that opened with the IOC widely accused of being complicit in China’s human rights abuses ended with the organization in the midst of a firestorm of controversy surrounding the latest Russian doping scandal that has seriously if not irreparably undermined the credibility of the Olympic Games, according to Olympians, past and present, international sports officials and athletes rights advocates.

“I think people don’t believe what they see,” said Rob Koehler, former deputy general of the World Anti-Doping Agency. “I think they’re bewildered and I think they’re losing interest and they no longer see the Olympics the way they used to be. They’re seeing the power and the corruption and the purity is lost. And (the IOC member) have themselves to blame for that. I think the numbers speak for themselves for these Games when it comes to viewership. People are losing interest.”

Even before the controversy surrounding the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to clear Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old gold medal favorite, to compete in the women’s competition despite testing positive for a banned endurance-boosting drug, swallowed the Games, the ratings for NBC’s Olympic coverage were at an all-time low.

Those ratings continued to slide through the second week of Games, that despite displays of athletic brilliance and moments of courage and poignancy, were unable to escape the shadow of the Russian doping scandal.

Norway cross country skier Therese Johaug won the 30,000 meter mass start race Sunday for her third gold medal of the Games, the country’s record 16th gold as it continued its Winter Olympics dominance. Nathan Chen skating to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Rocket Man” took flight with an almost flawless free skate for an Olympic record-setting victory. Chloe Kim also soared, defending her halfpipe against a skyline of nuclear reactors. U.S. skier Mikaela Shiffrin went home medal-less but would draw wide praise for her gracious and frank handling of a series of disappointments.

The Olympic landscape was marked by fences, barbed wire and workers in hazmat suits. China’s decision to shut off athletes, officials and the media from the rest of country in a so-called closed Olympic loop resulted in a 0.01 percent positive test rate. But China’s measures also drew criticism from athletes and officials.

The closed loop, said Canadian snowboarder Mark McMorris was “like a sports prison.”

But above all, the Beijing Games will be best remembered and symbolized by three haunting images from the women’s free skate Tuesday: Valieva being scolded and bullied by her coach Eteri Tutberidze before a global television audience after a mistake-filled meltdown of a program dropped the skater from first to fourth; Anna Shcherbakova, the new 17-year-old Olympic champion and a training partner of Valieva, not celebrating her victory but standing alone in a waiting area just off the Capital Indoor Stadium ice, looking sad and bewildered, and Alexandra Trusova, the silver medalist and another Tutberidze-coached skater, initially refusing to take part in the award ceremony.

“I hate skating,” Trusova, her mascara running down her cheeks with her tears, shouted at a Russian Olympic Committee official. “I hate it. I hate this sport. I will never skate again. Never.”

Among those disturbed by Tutberidze’s treatment of Valieva was Bach. The IOC president was largely AWOL after the Valieva scandal broke, leaving skaters, many of them still teenagers, to face a barrage of reporter’s questions on the controversy. Maybe if the IOC had a dairy sponsor it could have placed Bach’s photo on the side of a milk carton. Bach, breaking tradition with previous IOC presidents, watched the women’s free skate, for decades the Winter Games marquee event, not from a VIP box at the Capital Indoor Stadium but on television.

“When I afterwards saw how (Valieva) was received by her closest entourage, with such, what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this,” Bach said at a previously scheduled end-of-Games press conference a day after the competition. “Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”

But by the time Bach finally addressed the issue the IOC, WADA and CAS were already facing mounting charges of revictimizing Valieva and enabling child abuse. It was also pointed out that Bach and other IOC top officials had failed to condemn similar abusive behavior by U.S. gymnastics coach Bela and Martha Karolyi or numerous other Eastern European and Chinese coaches in several sports, or that the IOC has been largely silent in addressing the USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming sexual abuse scandals and similar cases in Great Britain, Canada and Australia.

A sample provided by Valieva at the Russian Championships on Christmas day tested positive for trimetazidine, a drug banned by WADA since 2014 that increases blood flow to the heart and is usually used to treat angina.

Her sample also revealed the presence of two other endurance boosting substances, hypoxen and L-carnitine, both of them legal but leading anti-doping experts to believe trimetazidine was taken as part of a performance enhancing cocktail.

The Russian Anti-Doping Agency provisionally suspended Valieva on Feb. 8 but lifted the ban a day later after Valieva filed a formal appeal.

A three-member CAS panel denied a request by the IOC, WADA and the International Skating Union, the sport’s worldwide governing body, to reinstate the suspension following a nearly six hour hearing Monday. The panel cited Valieva’s age, the potential for irreperable harm and the delay in the notification process in making its decision.

“The victim continues to get victimized,” said Koehler, now director general of Global Athlete, a Montreal-based international athlete rights advocacy group funded by Fair Sport, a non-profit founded to encourage and support whistleblowers in sports. “Here is an athlete that is stuck in the Russian system. We know from speaking to athletes from Russia, you’re either part of the system or you’re out of the system. If you’re part of the system you’re required to take whatever they tell you to take. You don’t have a choice.

“So here is an athlete, 15 years old, who has a prohibited substance in her. The rule of law says she should be provisionally suspended but they bent the rules. She’s already going through enough. … So she’s a victim of the system of Russia, I do believe that. And now we’re putting the victim back into the center of the lion’s den on the ice where the eyes of the world are going to be watching her and tagging her already as a cheat. But we’re going to put her through this and her competitors don’t want to be in the same arena as her as well?

“(IOC member) Dick Pound talks about giving Russia a timeout. It would have been better to give her a timeout to allow her to regroup and focus on the next Games. She’s only 15. And not expose her to this circus they’re putting her into.”

The circus, Olympians said, is largely the result of the IOC failing to ban Russian athletes from competing in Olympic Games ever after a series of IOC and WADA commissioned investigations revealed Russia’s state sponsored doping program that included covering up positive drug tests and the “manipulation of” drug testing and tampering with tests for Russian athletes at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

Since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the IOC has stripped Russian athletes of a total of 44 medals, 12 of them gold, for doping violations at the Winter or Summer Games. Yet Russian athletes were able to compete under the flag of the “Russian Olympic Committee” in Beijing as they had been at the Tokyo Games last summer.

The Valieva scandal has reignited international criticism that the IOC, Bach in particular, is too cozy with authoritarian regimes and the IOC, WADA and CAS’s deference to Russia has come at the expense of clean athletes.

“Nothing was done about the Sochi doping scandal in Russia’s eyes, or most of the Olympic community and the public. Russia kept their medals,” said Katie Uhlaender, a U.S. skeleton athlete and five-time Olympian, who was denied a bronze medal at the 2014 Games when CAS reinstated the medal to a Russian athlete who had previously been stripped of the prize after it was revealed she had doped at the Sochi Olympics.

“I fail to see any change or accountability. Instead, they have set an example of what can be gotten away with. And now it has been brought to light that children have become pawns in their system.”

WADA said it will investigate Tutberidze’s inner circle which includes Dr. Filipp Shvetsky, who was reportedly banned from working with Russia’s rowing team following a 2007 doping investigation. Shvetsky has accompanied Valieva, Shcherbakova and Trusova to international events this season.

“Events like this infuriate the athletes,” Koehler said. “But the IOC always tries to play the long game. They did it with Russia. People forgot about Russia until this happened. And next year they just can’t wait to get to Paris.”

But this scandal feels different, former and current Olympians said, that the Bach and the IOC’s complacency and culpability are finally too alarming for corporate sponsors and the public to ignore; that the three images–the bullied Valieva, the despondent Trusova, Shcherbakova looking lost in the moment of a lifetime — this truly unforgettable Olympic experience” will haunt the Olympic movement all the way to Paris and Milan Cortina and Los Angeles and beyond.

“I was feeling a lot of pleasure because I happened to be in the right time and the right place and did the right things — that’s the important thing,” Shcherbakova said shortly after her victory. “On the other hand, I feel this emptiness inside.”

Source: Orange County Register

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