The marquee event of the Winter Olympics, the women’s figure-skating championship, ended in a fiasco this year—a fitting climax to a games overshadowed by the oppressive climate in its host country and the growing threat of war from Russia. As it happens, those two things are connected and flow from the same basic impulse. Even as Russia has been driven by imperialistic nationalism to bring Ukraine under its boot, the figure-skating disaster has demonstrated the folly of national chauvinism and the illusion of its quest for glory.
Russia sent three teenage skating stars to this year’s games—Kamila Valieva, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Shcherbakova. Valieva dominated the first half of the women’s individual figure-skating championship, the short program, but was reported to have tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. The test had been conducted in December by a Russian Olympic testing agency but was not revealed prior to the games for reasons that remain a mystery—at least to those unfamiliar with Russia’s history of flagrant doping scandals.
Valieva was permitted to skate in the second half of the competition, but crushed by the pressure of international scrutiny, the 15-year-old faltered and ended in fourth place. The other Russian skaters took gold and silver—but in a way that left everybody miserable. Here’s how one report summed it up: “The gold medalist said she felt empty. The silver medalist pledged never to skate again. The favorite left in tears without saying a word.” The words of consolation sent to Valieva by a former Russian competitor said it all: “I am so happy that this hell is over for you.”
The Russian coach snapped at Valieva for “giving up.” Trusova, who won the silver medal, was upset because she had landed more of the quadruple jumps that usually earn the highest scores. She celebrated her finish by declaring, “I hate this sport. I won't go onto the ice again. … There is no happiness.” There wasn’t all that much happiness for Shcherbakova, either. As her gold medal win was announced, her teammates went off to comfort the other skaters, leaving her alone and disconsolate. “I still don’t comprehend what has happened. On the one hand I feel happy, on the other I feel this emptiness inside.” What great ambassadors for the sport!
There has been no joy in Moscow, either, where the Russians have been engaging in a round of recriminations. Instead of celebrating a triumph, they have been nursing a sense of aggrieved victimhood. This debacle is, in large part, a product of Russia’s dogmatic nationalism:
“In the Olympics, it's never just about figure skating or skiing or any sport,” Sarah Oates, a professor and expert in Russian propaganda at the University of Maryland, told Yahoo Sports. “It's about national pride. … So while the Olympics are supposed to be about how sport brings the world together, in reality, it's a chance to showcase your own national narratives.”
Every nation likes to root for its own athletes, of course. But chauvinism distorts patriotism and turns a nation’s outstanding achievers, such as its athletes, into cogs in the national machine. The nation does not seek greatness in order to promote the flourishing of its individuals. Instead, the individual must suffer to achieve the glory of the nation, as represented by the state and its rulers. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, under nationalism, we are not citizens with a state, but a state with citizens.
The Russian women’s figure-skating program is built on this idea. It is a factory designed to churn out gold medals for the glory of Mother Russia, fed on the bodies of teenage girls. The program is run by the notorious coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who was caught on camera berating Valieva after her loss. Tutberidze is known for driving her child athletes so mercilessly that they burn out and quit the sport before they even reach adulthood:
Prominent Russian coaches have gone so far as to refer to Tutberidze's athletes as “disposable” or “perishable goods,” and see her as trading on her athletes’ health in exchange for medals for Russia. Fans lament the so-called “Eteri expiration date,” around age 17, when her athletes are often forced into retirement by injury and diminishing results.
Abusive coaching of young athletes has long been a problem, particularly in women’s figure skating and gymnastics, where the rules increasingly favor the kind of acrobatic jumps and twists that are easier for young girls whose bodies are not fully developed. This, in turn, raises the incentive for coaches to drive their young athletes hard before they are 10 years old, grooming them to reach the peak of their careers at the age of 15. In the US, revelations like these produced a scandal that resulted in the sidelining of gymnastics coach Béla Károlyi (who brought his harsh training methods to America from the Eastern Bloc), and later to an outright rebellion led by the victims of Larry Nassar.
In Russia, on the other hand, a spokesman for Vladimir Putin opined that “The harshness of a coach in high-level sport is key for their athletes to achieve victories.” Tutberidze’s approach may be a dead end for individual skaters—another of her 15-year-olds recently crashed and had to be carted off in a wheelchair—but as a famous Russian ice-dancing coach frankly put it, her approach “works for the result of our country, Russia. It needs medals.”
This is the reason for the long history of Russian doping, dating back to the Soviet era. The East German Olympic team, in particular, became notorious for the suspiciously masculine musculature of its female athletes, whose physical health suffered serious long-term consequences. It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the full scope of East German doping was revealed:
East Germany treated sports as a vehicle to show the superiority of socialism over capitalism, divert attention from its underperforming economy, and provide an independent source of national pride without jeopardizing its security in the Warsaw Pact military alliance. Victory—even if achieved illegally and without consideration for individual human rights—was all that counted.
Putin’s Neo-Soviet Russia reverted to form with its systematic doping regime at the 2014 Sochi games. Hell, they even cheated at the Paralympics. When they got caught, many Russian athletes were initially barred from participating in the 2016 games. But the International Olympic Committee eventually settled on an inadequate compromise—Russia would be allowed to send an Olympic team under the banner of the “Russian Olympic Committee,” a penalty too minor to deter them from doping again.
Every authoritarian system suffers from a permanent deficit of legitimacy, which it seeks to fill by collecting the outward trappings of national greatness. It can’t deliver on the actual core needs of its citizens—a thriving economy and a vibrant culture—because that would require unleashing the independent creative energies of its citizens. Instead, the dictatorship concentrates its effort and resources on a few small and often purely symbolic victories. It’s the Potemkin Village approach to national honor and prestige.
What we just saw at the Olympics is this kind of nationalism in a nutshell. It ends in misery for individuals, who are exploited for the puffed-up prestige of the nation’s leaders. It creates a crisis for the sport, which is undermined by rampant cheating. It continually threatens disaster for the national teams, which are always on the verge of being blacklisted by the International Olympic Committee. And in the end it doesn’t even deliver what it promised. Rather than basking in a sense of national glory, Russians are once again wallowing in a sense of national self-pity.
This is the cost of an ethos that seeks to sacrifice the individual for a mirage of national greatness, rather than judging the nation’s greatness by the flourishing of its individuals. It is a timely and cautionary tale, and not just because Putin’s nationalism currently menaces Europe with the prospect of mass death and suffering. There is a faction in America, and in other Western countries, who are trying to sell us this same nationalist ethos. They want to make America great again in the same way that Putin made Russia great again.
We might want to take a hard look at the results first.