Less than two weeks after Russia turned one of the marquee events of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games into a bizarre and troubling fiasco, all of its figure skaters were banned from the upcoming world championships, not because of the country’s state-sponsored doping, but because of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
It took the most terrible thing in life to get the right result in sports.
As the international sports world continues shutting doors on athletes from Russia, the International Skating Union, figure skating’s worldwide governing body, announced that Russia’s powerful figure skating contingent would not be allowed at the world championships in Montpellier, France, later this month.
That means no Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old who would have been favored to win the women’s title presuming she has recovered after crumbling under the scrutiny of her positive drug test in Beijing. No Anna Shcherbakova, the defending world champion and surprising Olympic gold medalist who sat alone and barely celebrated that stunning evening after the women’s long program. No Alexandra Trusova, who was beside herself with anger that she did not win despite trying five quadruple jumps.
All that drama, rightly banned, but not for the reason we would have expected. The three teenagers heralded as the best in the world are not prohibited from competing because of Valieva’s drug test and what it says about the methods of her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also trains the other two. No, they are not allowed at the worlds as punishment for Putin’s state-sponsored killing, Russia’s awful attack on Ukraine.
That is the right decision, of course. As the world shuts Putin out and does all it can to punish him, sports certainly is doing its part. It was figure skating and track and field Tuesday; soccer, skiing and hockey, among others, a day or so ago.
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It’s hard to imagine a rebuke by the sports world would matter much to Putin as he unleashes his murderous fury on Ukraine, but we do know that over the years, he has cared deeply about sports. He spent $51 billion to put on the 2014 Sochi Olympics. He was so concerned about Russian success at those Games that his government launched the largest state-sponsored doping scheme since East Germany more than a generation earlier, right then and there.
And some of the most memorable photos of Putin at those Olympics were taken when he waded into a rinkside gathering of gold-medal-winning Russian skaters, touching the face and hair of 15-year-old starlet Julia Lipnitskaia, then whispering in her ear.
Figure skating in Russia is an international powerhouse and a national treasure. Five of the 12 Olympic medalists from Beijing were Russian. No other country was as dominant in figure skating at the Games: Japan won three medals; the United States two.
That’s not counting the team competition, which Russia also won, followed by the United States and Japan — although those results might yet change once a thorough investigation of Valieva’s drug test takes place.
The figure skating world championships right after the Winter Games usually are an afterthought. Olympic gold medalists sometimes don’t even show up. But this was going to be different because it was set up to be a continuation of the distressing drama of Beijing, the second act of the Valieva saga.
All that changed when Putin made sure that something tragically got in the way, something so much bigger, so much more important, so much more concerning.