As an Olympic postscript, consider IOC president Thomas Bach’s wacky offer of holdover gifts for victims of the fathomless ruling that allowed Russian teenager Kamila Valieva’s continued eligibility despite a failed drug test.
Bach wound up acknowledging the dystopian conclusion to the figure-skating circus after Valieva fell apart, was berated by her coach and left one of her medal-winning teammates enraged and the other virtually ignored. That the heavily favored Valieva crashed to fourth place in the individual final at least spared Bach’s IOC the embarrassment of having to cancel that discipline’s awards ceremony.
But an official verdict — and the inevitable appeals — on the legitimacy of Russia’s earlier Valieva-led first place in team skating could take months. And with all medals in that team event meanwhile held in escrow, Bach suggested giving each athlete for the second-place U.S. and third-place Japan an Olympic torch.
Goofy, no? There was no word regarding torches for the Canadians, who were fourth but, if the Russians ultimately are disqualified, would become bronze medalists, with the Japanese upgraded to silver and the Americans to gold. (There was confirmation that the U.S. skaters’ request for the temporary possession of silver medals was denied.)
Of course, no Russians should have been on the scene in the first place. The IOC’s clumsy wrist slap for Russia’s state-sponsored doping program in the 2014 Sochi Games somehow has resulted only in a ban of Russia’s flag and anthem in the four subsequent Olympics. Yet Russian athletes again were everywhere in Beijing, totaling the second-highest accumulation of hardware.
And most visible was Valieva, with a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel making matters worse by illogically reasoning that “irreparable harm” would be done to her if she couldn’t proceed in the free skate. That led to Valieva’s messy, distracted routine and the shunning by her entourage, which Slate’s Chris Schleicher wrote was “not only irreparable harm to Valieva but also to the sport of figure skating.” And, by extension, to the Olympics, since women’s figure skating is the Winter Games’ biggest show.
She’s only 15. There’s a good chance Valieva’s handlers had responsibility in the scandal, though there also was her weird claim of having been contaminated unintentionally by her grandfather’s heart medicine.
Whatever. Former anti-doping expert Don Catlin used to note that a positive drug test doesn’t profess to determine culpability — “We can’t know what’s in athletes’ heart or mind, only what’s in their bodies.” A failed test is a failed test and, according to the rules, requires a suspension.
But about those torches. Bach was referring to the cone-shaped objects, designed and produced each Olympic cycle, in which the Olympic flame is ceremoniously carried by thousands of runners from the site of the ancient Games in Olympia, Greece, to the host city. Typically, the torch relay covers more than 100 days through multiple nations leading up to the competition; it took 138 days for Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games. But, this year, because of the pandemic, a late decision drastically restricted the relay to just three days, confined to the Beijing area.
That means there probably are a lot of torches just lying around unused. (For the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, 26,440 torches were produced; there is no information on the total this time.) And that tends to reduce torch ownership to something akin to a widely-available souvenir — on the order of Olympic trading pins.
Even I have an Olympic torch. (I was among the handful of foreign journalists asked to run in the 1988 Seoul Olympics torch relay, when organizers wanted a mix of international participants and media folks could be counted on to be in the country before the Games.) Somehow, it’s hard to image that trinket as a replacement for an Olympic medal.
Thomas Bach is himself the possessor of an Olympic medal for being part on a winning team — West Germany’s fencers in the foil discipline — at the 1976 Montreal Games. Surely he knows what that prize is worth to an athlete. Maybe he ought to agitate for hanging a badge of guilt around the necks of all scoundrels involved in Russia’s state-run doping system. To keep them — not just their flags and anthems — outside the Olympic gates.