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The normality of Olympic brutality

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For anybody surprised about those ‘marquee tent’ moments, as an ABC journalist crudely termed them, the Olympics is as much about torment as it is about achievement. The torment is very much reserved for the athlete, the achievement reserved for officialdom and media and spectator consumption. 

Athletes are told to perform, to endure brutal physical regimens, in some cases take substances (legal or otherwise), all designed to win, to, in other words, excel. For their intimate torturers, they have their coaches. As their distant inquisitors, they have their sporting organisations and the scrutinising members of the fourth estate. These principles apply irrespective of country or system.

Such misery was offered in spades, and skates, with the failure of skater Kamila Valieva to win a medal spot in her event. The cruel fact is that it would not have mattered. On February 7, Valieva, already moving into the realm of legend in representing the Russian Olympic Committee at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, completed a quadruple jump. In doing so, she became the first woman to achieve that feat.

Two days later, it was reported in Russian media that she had failed a drug test prior to the Games commencement. A routine sample taken after victory in the Russian Nationals in December 2021 showed a positive test for trimetazidine, a drug on the banned list of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). It was subsequently claimed she had tested positive for hypoxen and L-carnitine, neither of which is on the banned list.

The picture became more disturbing. The Court of Arbitration (CAS) had given permission to Valieva to compete at the Beijing Olympics even as investigations into the alleged drug taking were ongoing. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Skating Union (ISU) and WADA argued that she should be disqualified. But the CAS noted Valieva’s status as a minor and being under the age of 16, acknowledging her ‘protected persons’ status under the World Anti-Doping Code.

There was very little done in the way of ensuring Valieva’s ‘protected person’ status was respected. Attention shifted to the ROC team, the skater’s parents and her coach, the renowned Eteri Tutberidze. Famed for her brutal methods and producing young skating superstars with brief careers, Tutberidze hectored a tearful Valieva after the skater left the ice. ‘Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting? Explain to me. Why?’

 

'Where there is power, funding and the usual asymmetry of interests, abuse will follow. Professional Olympians, notably those of tender years, are most susceptible.'

 

Righteous concern about Valieva’s treatment after making it to fourth place was duly registered, coming from such unlikely quarters as IOC President Thomas Bach. ‘When I saw how she was received by her closest entourage with what appeared to be a tremendous coldness – it was chilling to see.’

Disturbingly, this picture is not unique, and this sudden interest in Valieva’s plight can only be seen as disingenuous in the extreme. For one thing, dysfunctional and harsh training regimes, designed to get medals, plague the Olympics. Figures such as Tutberidze are usually admired for their severity.

In Australia, athletes have also been subjected to their share of coaching tyrants, notably in such celebrated sports as swimming. Swimmers are the sleek demigods of medal deliverance. Gold is expected.  The sentiment behind this was captured in an unforgettably oafish display by swimming coach Laurie Lawrence at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988. With Duncan Armstrong triumphant in the 200m freestyle event, achieved in record time, Lawrence was full of candour. ‘Why do you think we come here? For the silver? Stuff the silver!’

Such attitudes have had their predictable results. Feted publicly during their careers, the elite Australian swimmer was often abused by the harshest of training regimes, spearheaded by relentless coaches. They were then left, in retirement, to suffer poor mental health. The list of such figure is a pantheon of Australian Olympic achievement: Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe, Liesel Jones, to name but a few.

In her unsparing autobiography, Jones is scathing about the weekly ceremonial weighing rituals held by the Queensland Academy of Sport. Girls, she noted, were singled out by men ‘as old as our dads’ to be mocked for being 6:1:20. Sobbing in the showers after their post-inspection session, the denigrated knew ‘that “6” stands for the sixth letter of the alphabet, “1” the first, and “20” the twentieth. F.A.T. Doesn’t take a genius to bust that one open’.

Vulnerable and susceptible, swimmers such as Maddie Groves were subjected to even more than vicious coaching methods. ‘When I was underage, on multiple occasions,’ she told the ABC’s 7.30 Report last December, ‘I was actually molested by an adult male [in the sport].’ In June 2021, she withdrew from the trials for the Tokyo Olympics, citing the presence of ‘misogynistic perverts’ in elite swimming.

In February 2021, 47-year-old Shane Lewis took his life. In 2016, Lewis made a complaint to Swimming Australia alleging that he had been sexually abused by his former coach, John Wright, at Brisbane’s Chandler pool during the 1980s. Other swimmers also made claims of physical assault and abuse, including Colin Marshall and Su-Lin Ch’ng.

In June 2021, Swimming Australia commissioned a long overdue independent inquiry into the treatment of women and girls in the sport, garnering views from 150 participants including former and current athletes, parents, coaches, technical officials, volunteers and administrators. The panel’s report, which remains confidential, ‘found that Swimming Australia must address the coaching gender imbalance, coaching culture, education and accreditation, governance structures, and the complaints process.’

Where there is power, funding and the usual asymmetry of interests, abuse will follow. Professional Olympians, notably those of tender years, are most susceptible. Every sporting team, notably in fields such as skating, gymnastics and swimming, has a Tutberidze or, in its more sinister manifestation, a Wright. They have been historically backed by wilfully blind sporting bodies and media outlets that prefer to focus on the antiquated fiction of Olympism as envisaged by the French educator Baron de Coubertin. What ultimately matters is bread and circuses; flesh and sweat. In the case of the winter Olympics at Beijing, it came with ice and misery.

 

 

 

Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Kamila Valieva of Team ROC reacts after skating during the Women Single Skating Free Skating on day thirteen of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games. (Catherine Ivill /Getty Images) 

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Olympics, Torment, Athletes, Kamila Valieva, Beijing, Winter 2022

 

 

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Existing comments

It’s a long way from Chariots of Fire, isn’t it. I watched transfixed at the outdoor events of the Winter Olympics, at the skill and daring of the competitors. And it is that way at each of the Games. The cost to be able to compete at that level is considerable: the whole focus of their lives is about achieving in those moments. Then eventually they retire. Coaches who take advantage of an athlete’s vulnerability and dependence should be driven from their positions of power. One of my grand daughters is achieving at a high level in swimming and fortunately her parents are being watchful and are encouraging a diversity of interests. Plus she has many responsibilities in a busy household, most effective for keeping her feet on the ground.


Pam | 01 March 2022  

When nationalism, power, prestige and money come into sports, corruption , abuse and absolute torture reign supreme. For far too long these evils have been hidden from view. It is thanks to these brave individuals who have decided to lift the veil that we, the general public, have been able to glimpse the horrors covered up by these so called elite sports bodies that our tax payer money have been for years been funnelled into but at what cost?
With the revelation of abuses across so many of our cherished institutions including the Catholic Church, one has to ask, for how long has this been happening? why has it taken so long, at tremendous cost to society for the truth to finally come out? How much worse can it get? More importantly, how can we prevent such abuses in the future if Governments seem unwilling or unable to act?


Gavin O'Brien | 01 March 2022  

The level of child abuse in pursuit of sporting honours is beyond my understanding. What seems to be largely true, however, is that coaches are rarely high achievers in the sport they coach and there is also the brand of non-achieving parent who strives for recognition through his/her child. One of my 11 yr old grandchildren is a very skilled soccer player for his age - so skilled that he was selected as a rep player in an age group two years above his age. They are required to train 4 afternoons a week!! When I played rugby in an undefeated first fifteen at school we trained for
one hour on Thursday afternoons after school. In those days we enjoyed the game and I doubt that any of us suffered any stress or psychological damage. The damage to young sportspeople these days commonly results, it seems, from the ambitions of their coaches and often their parents. Sad and totally unacceptable.


john frawley | 02 March 2022  

"Little fleas have lesser fleas upon their backs to bite 'em, and lesser fleas have littler fleas, and so, ad infinitum..." For every sports "star" there's a trove of hidden and no-so-anonymous coaches, managers, trainers, physicians and others who derive a pay check courtesy of the host...but only while they're winning. Not unlike a gardener spraying seaweed fertilizers on their vege patch, they have a vested interest in the success of the outcome; that some performance enhancing drugs are as unnatural as seaweed in Canberra is irrelevant to the average parasite. There's nobody more lonely than a has-been; when the blood runs out the fleas flee. We often encounter arguments for wages and better conditions for players, we also see arguments for permanent "employee" contracts for contractors like Uber or 7-11; why are sports players so vastly different? How can players be on a team or at the AIS for 12 years and then vanished/banished? They're not "redundant"; the sport and team continues but the leeches turn their attention to a new crop. Personally, I am unaffected by the emotions of the Olympic brutality; despite being a tax payer it seems my tax dollar doesn't buy "moving" pictures so our national broadcaster ABC protects me from seeing both the motion and emotion.


ray | 02 March 2022  

Sadly, as you present it so succinctly, this is par for the course. Tracey Menzies has exposed this. A celebrated, successful and nonabusive coach, she has not been employed by the national authority for a long time. It's all about money and success. Laurie Laurence might be a good bloke but I deplore his 'Aussie, Aussie Ooi! Ooi!' approach. It's so Les Patterson. I quail. My English and American cousins laugh at it. It's nonsense!


Edward Fido | 03 March 2022  

You nail it yet again, Binoy! Good to also read, for once, an undiluted all round endorsement for the stand you take.

In my first teaching appointment in Australia, I was aghast to see our Seniors in Perth ranged against a Senior team from the a similar order-owned Victorian college, and who were a full year older than our lads.

At one point one of our parents, incensed by the unfairness of the size difference, was heard to yell out to her son to 'break his leg'.

This uncontrolled outburst, later claimed to be expressed in the heat of the moment, infuriated the Rector, who immediately informed the referee that we were withdrawing our team from the game.

A lesson in sportsmanship well taught and one hopes, in the light of hard-fought subsequent objection to the decision of the Rector from various other parents, also learned the hard way! Cheers!


Michael Furtado | 04 March 2022  

For those who do not know of her, Tracey Menzies is a very successful swimming coach. She is known to and supportive of the likes of Ian Thorpe. She seems out of sympathy with the current 'win at all costs' ethos of Swimming Australia. When someone like Cate Campbell talks about being 'body shamed' we know there is a problem. The advent of professionalism, which means big money; sponsorships; advertising; TV rights; betting and a panoply of paid coaches and administrators has changed the Olympic and amateur ideals of sport forever.


Edward Fido | 05 March 2022  

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