David Owen

Not being in Beijing, I have taken the view, until now, that I should leave commentary pertaining to Kamila Valieva to colleagues who are.

But the story has become so all-consuming that I do not think that position is any longer sustainable.

So, here are a few reflections sparked by the 15-year-old figure skater who, I would think, is destined to be by a country mile the most talked-about figure of these rather desultory Winter Games - with the possible, and admittedly important, exception of inside China itself.

1. I have said it before, but it cannot be stated enough: doping is the greyest and murkiest of grey areas.

And no matter how much fans and athletes might wish it to be otherwise, and how hard authorities have tried to enshrine the doctrine of strict liability, it will always be so.

Indeed, while the proportion of elite athletes wealthy or well-connected enough to afford the best legal representation continues to grow, the anti-doping space is only going to get more nuanced, more complex and, for many, more frustrating.

And - you know what? - if actual justice is to be the priority, this is no bad thing.

Fans who think otherwise might care to reflect on the allowances we all tend to make when athletes we feel some affiliation towards are accused and think again.

2. Polemics relating to individual doping cases are invariably worst during events, like the Olympics, which tend to inflame nationalism.

Throw in the tiny additional detail that people are currently waking up each morning fearing that NATO and Russia might be at war over Ukraine, and the prospect of rationality being anything other than drowned out by those whose opinions are conditioned by their nationality is negligible.

3. Different countries generally retain different narratives relating to each successive edition of this most solipsistic of sports events.

Yet it is starting to look like the only things which Beijing 2022 will be remembered for across large chunks of the planet are Valieva, China-related international affairs and human rights controversies; oh, and artificial snow.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its many satellites might care to pause while they are watching the numbers in their various bank accounts tick upwards and reflect upon the longer-term consequences of that.

Kamila Valieva has been cleared to participate in the women’s singles figure skating event today ©Getty Images
Kamila Valieva has been cleared to participate in the women’s singles figure skating event today ©Getty Images

4. From what I have read, it seems that the proceedings so far have not, nor were intended to, clarify perhaps the key question as far as Beijing 2022 is concerned: why, when the sample was provided on Christmas Day, was analysis seemingly not undertaken until early February?

It is easy to be cynical about this, but it is not in question that COVID cases, though mercifully not deaths, have been surging in Russia: the day-to-day summary compiled by the Moscow Times said the country on February 11 reported over 200,000 new COVID-19 infections for the first time since the start of the pandemic; this was up from 15,000-20,000 cases a day over the first 12 days of 2022.

5. This matter of the interval between sample provision and analysis feeds into another important point linked to the way sport has been evolving.

Legal and quasi-legal sanctioning systems the world over tend to operate on the basis that all time is of equal value, i.e., that let us say a ten-year penalty is, as night follows day, twice as severe as a five-year one.

For many athletes populating the minor sports that huddle for warmth around the Olympic brazier, this is demonstrably not the case: indeed, a two-week period of ineligibility that rules someone out of an Olympics can arguably be considerably more damaging to their interests than a three-year ban that does not.

To be fair, the anti-doping regime has made efforts in recent years to take this on board.

But could it be more rigorous and systematic about ensuring that each component in its global machine is programmed accordingly?

6. Does the World Anti-Doping Code need clarifying? The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel which cleared the way for Valieva to compete in the women’s singles in Beijing appears to think so, asserting that the Code is “silent with respect to provisional suspension imposed on protected persons”.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) argues that the Code “does not allow for specific exceptions to be made in relation to mandatory provisional suspensions for ‘protected persons’”.

But if the panel ruling sets a precedent, sport may have a problem and even if things can be ironed out by WADA’s Foundation Board, rather than awaiting the next wholesale revision of the Code, I can see that it might take a while to solve it to everybody’s satisfaction.

A huge billboard of Kamila Valieva reading
A huge billboard of Kamila Valieva reading "Kamila, we are with you!" in Moscow after the teenager was cleared to continue competing at Beijing 2022 ©Getty Images

7. Now that we have a thing called the Youth Olympics, should the Olympics/Winter Olympics not be confined to adults of, say, 18 years and over?

To be frank, I can see both sides of this argument - why should excellence be subject to age constraints?

But it is a subject that is crying out for thoughtful consideration by independent experts with no direct stake in TV ratings and medal hauls.

8. Objectively, Valieva is brilliant at what she does.

My good friend Philip Hersh, who has covered at least 19 Olympic Games, many for the Chicago Tribune, knows more about figure skating - way more - than I will ever know.

This is his assessment of her: "Like Usain Bolt, at her best Valieva is in a league of her own.

"That separation comes largely from her big jumps, but she complements that with the leg and arm extension of a ballerina and a fast-improving ability to leave a mature artistic impression and relate to her music."

Yet sadly the true calibre of her remaining performances in Beijing is now set to be judged through a stultifyingly nationalistic prism, far more intense than that applied to most Olympic competitors, both in Russia and the West.

This is a consequence of whatever sequence of events led to her positive test for the banned heart medicine trimetazidine.

But it is hard to think of a more depressing example of the worsening weaponisation of sport.