This is nothing new. As Ingle went on to say, “When it comes to the abuse of young athletes, it is not just Russia, and it is not only doping. In the US and Britain we have heard horrific tales of sexual and physical abuse, particularly in gymnastics, where girls are required to train as elite athletes from a young age.”
On 15 Feb The New York Times reported that one top official in the International Olympic Committee “repeated one of [Valieva’s] lawyer’s claims that she had ingested the banned drug by mistake”. Implausible as this defence may be, it is unsurprising that the IOC should wish to treat Valieva’s case as one about cheating – accidental or otherwise – rather than one about child protection. Because in allowing children to compete as adults in the Olympics, the IOC itself bears a considerable degree of culpability for the abuse of children.
Olympic-sized potential for abuse
Let us be plain: the IOC oversees a system in which child abuse and child trafficking are inevitable.
In some sports, children are almost always better than adults. “Women’s” gymnastics, for example, is a sport that for much of its Olympic history has been dominated by children. In others, like figure skating or diving, they frequently compete alongside adult athletes for medals. But just because it’s possible is not a good enough reason to allow their participation.
In permitting children to compete at an elite level, the IOC gives national Olympic committees an incentive to recruit vulnerable children into their athletic programmes. Many of these programmes have been shown to, at best, have little concern for the best interests of their child athletes. At worst they have been found to physically and sexually abuse them.
That the IOC still permits children to compete indicates that they are deliberately turning a blind eye to the fact that this very permission is a systemic root cause of their abuse and trafficking. If children were not allowed to compete at such elite levels that would at least prevent cases of drugging 15 years olds to get gold. It would also lessen, to a degree, the incentives for exploitation of children. This would be just a starting point for a much more thoroughgoing reform to the systems of high-level sports competition, throughout which, as Valieva’s case illustrates, the risks for dreadful abuse of children remain unaddressed.
In other words, what happened to Valieva is the latest indictment of not just the shocking failures of the Russian Olympic Committee to protect its children. It is also an indictment of the entire Olympic movement, in particular of the IOC, for valuing athletic spectacle over children’s rights and child protection.
On the evening of Thursday 17 February 2022 Valieva competed in the Olympic figure skating final in the Winter Olympics and failed to gain a podium place. This was met with a torrent of abuse towards Valieva from her ‘coach’. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to be the worst thing that has happened to Valieva this year. And, unless the IOC realises that the lives of children are more important than their games, she will not be the last child who is trafficked by the system that they oversee.
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