Kamila Valieva's Beijing experience summed up the complicated nature of the Olympic ideal (Pic: Getty Images.)
You had to feel for teenage Russian figure-skating star Kamila Valieva as she slipped or fell at least four times in the free program and missed out on an Olympic medal of any kind having been favorite for gold.
Sure, she shouldn’t have been competing at all, having failed a drugs test after the team skating event last week. But, at the end of the day, she’s a 15-year-old child who has been let down by the adults who control her life in full gaze of a global audience - and it was heartbreaking to watch her devastated and in tears after her fateful performance.
One can only imagine the pressure she has been under over the past few days. Already considered one of the greatest figure skaters of the modern era despite her tender years, she was clearly the most talented competitor in the field. But what should have been a triumph that would set her up for a legendary career turned into a nightmare. I hope she can recover from this on both a personal and competitive level.
I couldn’t believe it when Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze berated Valieva as she left the ice rather than comforting her after such a traumatic experience. At a press conference, International Olympic Committee chairman Thomas Bach rightly called out Valieva’s entourage for their “chilling” reaction to her strife.
It was also somewhat convenient, for everyone else involved, that she finished fourth. Russian skaters – one of whom shared a trainer with Valieva – still finished first and second and the medal ceremony could take place, which wouldn’t have happened if Valieva had finished in the top three due to the ongoing drug investigation.
However, it’s not surprising American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson for one felt hard done by in comparison. She missed out on the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year because she tested positive for cannabis.
The principal difference between the two athletes? Well, apart from the fact that cannabis is considered a non-performance-enhancing drug, Richardson is Black and Valieva is white. And, given she is under 16, the Russian was still allowed to compete in the individual competition as she is regarded as a “protected person” under the World Anti-Doping Code.
As a concept the Olympics are truly special and offer a unique global opportunity to celebrate the human spirit and transcend politics. They can represent a fantastic opportunity for brands to partner with the Olympic movement to bask in the respected feel-good factor and tell their stories.
But, as on many previous occasions, the Olympic Oath has been sorely tested this past two weeks despite the best efforts of the athletes, who often represent the Olympic spirit in spite of – rather than because of – the efforts of their coaches, home countries, the organizers and governments.
The Oath was first conceived at the ancient Olympic Games where competitors swore on a statue of Zeus. It was introduced in 1920 – with an athlete reciting it while holding the Olympic flag: “We swear. We will take part in the Olympic Games in a spirit of chivalry, for the honor of our country and for the glory of sport.”
In many respects the athletes achieve that, from the pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies to the sportsmanship and sportswomanship among the competitors across a variety of disparate events.
Who can forget the remarkable friendship forged between legendary Black American sprinter Jesse Owens and German long-jumper Luz Long at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin in the presence of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler?
Or the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when the American sprinter Shawn Crawford sent his silver medal to the original second-place finisher Churandy Martina when the latter was disqualified having briefly stepped out of his lane. Crawford sent the medal with the note: "I know this won't replace the moment, but I want you to have this, because I believe it's rightfully yours."
In 2022, the Olympic motto was updated to state, “together for a shared future.” And “faster, higher, stronger – together,” with the emphasis on “together.”
However, the reality is that, despite the noble significance of the Olympic rings representing the joining of the five continents of the world, politics, conflict and controversy always rear their ugly heads.
There was the terrorist attack on Israeli team members at the 1972 Summer Olympic Games in Munich. And a fatal domestic terrorist bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
The U.S. boycotted the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 in protest at the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets and 13 other Eastern Bloc countries retaliated in 1984 by giving the Los Angeles summer games a miss.
In many ways the Olympics are a metaphor for the Cold War, currently reignited by Russia’s aggressive moves toward Ukraine and the West’s reaction. That’s why the “Miracle on Ice” victory of the U.S. hockey team over the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980 was so epic in its celebration and proportion. It was a proxy for war played out on ice.
In modern times, athletes such as Valieva are competing under the Russian Olympic Committee banner after the country was banned for four years in 2019 for running a state-sponsored doping scheme.
The Valieva incident has cast a pall over the whole Winter Olympics, which already started on a down note as countries including the U.S., Australia, Japan and Great Britain put in place a diplomatic boycott of the games because of host country China’s human rights record.
And there are many other narratives on view in Beijing that reflect the complexity and culture of the modern world.
San Francisco-born 18-year-old Chinese freestyle skier Eileen Gu won two gold medals and one silver competing for China. She formerly represented the U.S. but changed affiliation in 2019, with the stated Olympic ideal of helping to inspire millions of young people in China and "to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendships between nations."
She spends her summers in China with her mother and speaks fluent Mandarin and English. Gu still lives in California and is heading for Stanford University later this year. She says she is American when she’s in the U.S. and Chinese when she’s in China - a very Gen Z attitude to nationhood.
A brand icon in China, where she represents more than 20 marques, she is also popular in the U.S. and the West, counting Louis Vuitton, Tiffany & Co., Red Bull and Beats by Dre among her endorsements.
However, 19-year-old figure skater Zhu Yi, who renounced her U.S. citizenship, and moved to Beijing, was criticized for her under par performance in the single free skating event that dropped China out of the medal places.
Zhu was called "too American" because of the quality of her Mandarin and told to "go back to America," proving if nothing else that racism has no national boundaries.
Similarly, U.S.-born Olympian Nathan Chen, whose mom grew up in Beijing, was dubbed a "traitor" on social media in China for being "too white" and "Americanized" and also for not speaking Mandarin well enough.
Elsewhere, Kaillie Humphries, a two-time Olympic women’s bobsled gold medalist with Canada, won the inaugural pilot-only monobob race in her first Olympics representing the U.S.
She forsook her country of birth after filing a harassment complaint against Canada’s bobsled governing body in 2018, saying she was "repeatedly and horribly verbally and mentally abused by the head coach."
There were many other complicated social, cultural and political narratives playing out in the Olympic maelstrom in China.
But just as with the Russian, American and other gymnasts in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo last year who consoled and congratulated each other after their respective performances, I’d rather remember the camaraderie of the young athletes and the comradeship that really represent the noble Olympic ideals and gives us hope for the future of the world.
The world is a much smaller place than it was during the height of the Cold War in the 1960s and 70s and these athletes are familiar with each other from their social media footprints, mutual brand endorsements and common cultural references.
Think of the respect shown to U.S. snowboard icon Shaun White by his youthful fellow competitors from around the world as he handed over the baton to the young generation of a sport he essentially established, popularized and inspired.
Or the female snowboarders in the big air final clearly having a blast and just enjoying competing against each other and being part of the unique experience of the Olympic Games.
The Olympics are complicated, for sure. But, call me naïve if you like, I still think they give us hope for a better future inspired by a more progressive and tolerant generation that genuinely buys in to those precious Olympic ideals.
Here’s to chivalry, honor and glory and going faster, higher and stronger – together. For a shared, united future of common understanding.