Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Opinion

Is Kamila Valieva a victim of child trafficking?

Even when they are elite athletes and the prize is Olympic gold, exploiting minors is against international law

Aidan McQuade
22 February 2022, 7.00am
Kamila Valieva in Beijing
Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Alamy Live News. All rights reserved

There has been no end to the hot takes since it was revealed that Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old Russian figure skater, failed a drug test at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The decision to allow Valieva to continue to compete, citing the “irreparable harm” it would cause her if she was prevented from doing so, has also provoked considerable comment.

Sarah Hirshland, the US Olympic and Paralympic CEO, said she was “disappointed by the message this decision sends”, and Adam Rippon, a former Olympic bronze medallist and skating coach, said it was “a complete slap in the face to every single athlete who comes here to compete clean”. To that he added, “The people around her completely failed her.”

Indeed. Writing in the Guardian, Sean Ingle honed in on this most vital issue. “As Global Athlete, a union that represents thousands of athletes, put it,” he wrote, “Valieva’s positive doping test appears clear evidence of abuse of a minor.” Reading the reports over the past week, even stronger words came to my mind: child trafficking.

This is not hyperbole. Child trafficking is defined in international law as the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt” of a child for the purposes of exploitation. At 15 years old Valieva is legally a child. If she is being deliberately drugged to enhance her athletic performance by those who have a duty of care towards her, in this case the Russian Olympic Committee and her coaches, then this would be stark evidence that they were not interested in her mental and physical well-being. Rather it would show that their priority is exploiting her for the possibility that she may bring them Olympic gold. This would be an unequivocal example of child trafficking under international law.

The IOC oversees a system in which child abuse and child trafficking are inevitable.

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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