Regarding the Western nations’ announcement of sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s close associates, should it be a surprise they include a woman, 32 years his junior, long identified as his mistress? Putin, currently directing the murder of thousands in neighboring Ukraine, isn’t exactly a man who heeds accepted moral or ethical norms.
Should it be a shock, furthermore, that the woman, Alina Kabaeva (sometimes spelled Kabayeva), was an Olympic champion whose athletic career was interrupted by a positive drug test — an uncommonly regular development in Putin’s Russia?
Beyond instigating real wars, Russia, which Putin has ruled as president or prime minister since 2000, has a well-earned reputation for subverting the conventions of international sports — the so-called wars-without-bullets. Through a systematic, state-supported doping program, more Russian competitors have been caught using banned stuff than athletes from any other nation.
The number of busted Russians is beyond 150, and the total of Russians stripped of Olympic medals is a world-leading 46, four times that of the next-highest country. Leading up to, and during, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia — where Putin reportedly enjoys vacation time on the Black Sea and has built a second government office — Russia deployed what was identified as “the disappearing positive test methodology” to cover up hundreds of failed tests by its athletes.
The director of Sochi’s 2014 Olympic doping laboratory later blew the whistle on Russian officials and intelligence service members who surreptitiously replaced Russians’ drug-tainted urine samples with clean urine by passing bottles back-and-forth through a small hole in the lab’s wall.
Yes, foreign substances have turned up in athletes from many other countries, including the US of A. (Juicing without borders.) But it generally is accepted that the original state-sponsored doping operation was perfected in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany) in the 1970s, when more than 10,000 unsuspecting East German jocks were given massive doses of banned anabolic steroids. (Check our Steven Ungerleider’s book, Faust’s Gold.)
It’s interesting to note that Vladimir Putin, working at the time for the Soviet Union’s notorious KGB, was stationed in the GDR at the time, in Dresden, and one function of the snooping KGB would have been to know about such skullduggery.
Might a similar government-coordinated process have been at work this winter when Russian figure-skater Kamila Valieva’s failed drug test before Beijing’s Winter Games belatedly became public, creating the latest Olympic scandal? Valieva, just 15, claimed to have been unaware of any illegal pharmaceuticals in her system and Putin publicly defended her, presented her with a state award, and declared that she was another case of Russian athletes victimized by discrimination based on nationality.
Meanwhile, about Kabaeva, Putin’s alleged paramour, who won a gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the quirky sport of rhythmic gymnasts, in which women perform 75- to 90-second routines cavorting with hoops, ropes, clubs, balls and ribbons. (We smart-aleck Olympic journos sarcastically called the discipline “whips and chains.”)
Rhythmic gymnasts essentially are contortionists — flipping, handspringing, cartwheeling while balancing the various pieces of apparatus — and Kabaeva was a star, a European and world champion by the time she was 16. But at 18, she was stripped of the 2001 world title after testing positive for the diuretic furosemide — outlawed because, as well as facilitating weight loss, it typically is used to mask other performance-enhancing substances. (Coincidental note: The woman who subsequently inherited that world title was Tamara Yerofeeva. A Ukrainian.)
Kabaeva nevertheless has continued to live a charmed and fabulously compensated life — presented by Putin with the top state honor, the Order of Friendship; appointed to a seat in Russia’s lower house of parliament; made chairwoman of the board overseeing state-controlled media; chosen to be among the final torchbearers for the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Just last month, appearing at a junior gymnastics festival in Moscow, she praised Putin for the war effort, which really is nothing but an invasion, in Ukraine.
Feels like another variation on the theme of Putin treachery. Another parable of tyranny. More whips and chains.