Dogs seem to have a mixed reputation in Russia. I know this because it came up rather a lot during a surreal time in my life and returned to mind this week, when it was announced Kamila Valieva had been given a four-year ban for doping.
Dogs were the insult of choice in February 2022, if I retrace to the days that followed me putting a question to Valieva, who was then a 15-year-old child at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.
It was clumsy in the wording, too cold, but regrettably justified by astonishing circumstances – was she a clean athlete?
It was delivered in the interview area after her training session on a Friday afternoon, by which point a skater unlike any other had been through a week that was as unique as the athlete herself: a trailblazing gold medallist on the Monday, a medal ceremony cancelled on the Tuesday, whispers of a sinister reason on the Wednesday, pursued by cameras on Thursday, and confirmed by the International Olympic Committee as having failed a drugs test for a banned heart drug on the Friday morning.
Her quadruple jump, an act of grace and sporting brilliance, one never before seen at the Olympics, had spun into a rampaging tornado in the space of four days.
A four-year doping ban was imposed on teenage Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva
News that Valieva tested positive for a banned substance in 2021 emerged when she was 15
With none of her team choosing to accompany her as she hurried past the media that afternoon, she was left alone to deal with it all. Maybe we can draw a conclusion here about the shoddiness with which the Russians handle these crises, and goodness they’ve had enough practice by now.
But the point is this: the senior coaches and staff we would prefer to ask were nowhere to be seen. Hiding. Cowering behind a kid in the eye of a scandal that drew worldwide attention.
I’m still conflicted about the question, or specifically the bluntness of the words to someone so young, but the reaction that followed was quite revealing in its way.
That’s where it got strange and it is also where the dogs come into this: the first wave featured the five mutts posing as Russian ‘journalists’ who simultaneously acted as part of the team ensemble.
They immediately took a photo of my accreditation and posted it online. That quickly brought the second wave from bot accounts under Russian names on Twitter.
Valieva (pictured with Russian president Vladimir Putin at an awarding ceremony in 2022) tested positive for banned heart medication trimetazidine (TMZ) in December 2021
They’re a common tool in Russia and elsewhere and you might know the sort – no picture, a handful of followers, but good for creating so much noise that real people join in. It’s a ploy that works and the response was oddly consistent.
You’re a dog. Your mother is a dog. Father, dog. Dogs are better than you, dog. There were dozens of those dog messages, almost all in Russian, to go with almost a thousand others across social media and emails.
One asked if I enjoyed eating baby pandas, but that’s a digression, because elements of the Russian media picked it up and the Western dogs asking questions became a sizeable part of their reporting. The why and the how of the most remarkable and startling doping case in Olympic history? From what I could tell, they made a dog’s breakfast of those bits.
But that’s the time-honoured tale of deflection and diversion; it’s all part of the narrative where it is never Russia’s fault. This week, that extended to the Kremlin accusing the Court of Arbitration for Sport of a ‘politicised’ decision against Valieva.
The Russian Olympic Committee went further and argued that ‘war has been declared on Russian sport’, which felt a bit rich. Irony? They’ll take it if it shaves off a couple of tenths, I suppose. In the Valieva case, we will never know with absolute certainty if her positive test was unwitting contamination or if the Russians stooped so low as to dope a kid.
Russia accused the Court of Arbitration for Sport of a ‘politicised’ decision against Valieva
The full report into the whole sorry episode has not been published, but the court panel is understood to have seen some merit in the possibility of an accident. It was based on the claim of Valieva’s legal team that her grandfather took medication for a heart condition and they shared cutlery – it might explain how trimetazidine got into her system.
Advanced science means a positive finding is often reverse-engineered to a place of ambiguity, the kind where a definitive judgment is impossible and regularly we are shepherded there by clever lawyers. They earn their money. But sometimes there is a complicated explanation for a complicated look and sometimes it is, legitimately, an accident. I hope for the sake of Valieva, a victim whichever way we cut it, that it was a dirty knife and fork.
But where is the ambiguity around Russia at this stage? What benefit of the doubt can their sporting system possibly expect by now? And why, in an Olympic year, when sport is worthless if you cannot believe your eyes, should they continue to receive invitations to the party? I don’t believe they should. Not for a while yet, actually. Not until they have gone so much as a single four-year cycle of summer and winter Games without someone getting popped.
At this stage we might break it down and say Valieva is merely a tainted pixel. But the bigger picture of Russian sport in this area is wider than the Bayeux Tapestry and more detailed than anything in the Louvre. It is a bigger picture that has glowed in shades of fluorescent green for the past decade since we heard of Russia’s state-sponsored doping.
Some numbers are easily available but always worth recapping – going back to 1968, there have been 155 Olympic medals stripped across summer and winter Games for doping offences and 45 of the athletes were Russians – that is more than quadruple the nation in second. Since the summer Olympics of 2008, they have accounted for 38 out of 101 reclaimed medals. Since London 2012, it is 24 out of 52.
The full report into the whole sorry episode leading to Valieva’s ban has not been published
We can equivocate and point to other nations. We might talk about the highly questionable ethics of those within the British system around the London Games, too. Or CJ Ujah’s positive in Tokyo. But since the Eighties no one has done it quite like Russia.
We know how their corruption peaked at the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014. We know about mouse holes in the wall of their anti-doping labs through which dirty urine was exchanged for clean before and during those Games. About systematic obfuscation and non-cooperation in the investigations that came after they were rumbled. We know full well, too, about a Russian doping mastermind turned whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, who to this day lives in fear of assassination and once said trimetazidine was a drug of choice within the regime.
Plainly, the landscape today is not the same as it was then. And yet, with Valieva’s situation, two of the past three medals to be stripped in the Olympic sector were from Russians and post-date the avalanche. Accidents?
Maybe. And it is distinctly possible that the dog did eat Valieva’s homework.
But she does raise another couple of questions that the Twitter bots won’t like: why always them? And why must we continue to put up with it?
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