In this article, originally published by Countercurrents, women’s historian Linda Ford analyzes and condemns the misogynist and racist animus directed by US imperialism towards two outstanding teenage woman athletes, Gu Ailing (Eileen Gu) of China and Kamila Valieva of Russia, in the service of the new Cold War.
As Ford rightly concludes:
“Here is hegemonic politics, and ruthless patriarchy and racism, coming together. And here are two remarkably strong and level-headed young women athletes who are braving the results of being who they are. In its overwhelming power, the US Empire has made evil all things Chinese and Russian, and women athletes have not been spared the weaponizing of that hate.”
As one who has followed Olympic women’s figure skating, especially since Michelle Kwan (ironically a Chinese-American), I was—as an egalitarian feminist when it comes to sports—excited to learn that there was a 15-year-old Russian woman skater, Kamila Valieva, who could do effortless quad jumps. Waiting in anticipation of her first Olympic performance, I listened to commentators and former US skaters Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir rave about her spectacular talent. They told the audience that we were about to see “the best skating in the world”…that “a talent like this comes around once in a lifetime.” They found her first performance in the short skate “incredible… flawless… perfect in every way.” It was, they said, a rare privilege to watch her perform: “she will have an amazing legacy.” Days later they would say nothing watching her perform.
Weir and Lipinski were disgusted. They said she should not be there. It was so unfair to the other skaters. They were too sickened to even watch her. What happened? The Empire and its allies, based on a highly questionable positive drug test, declared her a “doper.” She was booed, harassed. And she finally (literally) fell. The Russians should obviously not have the first female Olympic quad jumper. The Russians were taking far too many gold medals. This whole spectacle was an intersection of hegemonic American world politics and ruthless patriarchy. Women athletes had become enemies, and thus victims, of Empire. USA! USA!
The US has always had a need to be first—to put it mildly. Any coverage of Olympic or international games I’ve ever watched features US athletes and almost never anyone else. President Jimmy Carter got the ball rolling with his 1980 boycott of the Olympics in the Soviet Union. Under Carter the Cold War had worsened because of factors like American criticism of Soviet alleged abuses of human rights and the Afghan crisis—therefore the controversial move to ignore the Olympics’ so-called non-political philosophy. American views of Russian athletics did not improve: the alleged Russian Doping Scandals began around 2008 and are still going. In 2008, Russian track and field athletes were suspended from competition because of supposed doping, cheating, cover-ups, even “state-sponsored” doping.
A 2015 New York Times article cited an ex-chief of a so-called Russian anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, who claimed that samples were doctored so that several Russian gold medal winners in the 2014 winter games in Sochi could be victors. Members of the Russian Sports Ministry thought it an April Fools’ joke, done for “purely political reasons” and threatened to sue the Times. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had asked the accuser, Mr. Rodchenkov to resign years before, for taking bribes, and since 2012 he had lived in L A. Because of such allegations, the World Athletics Federation suspended the Russian Athletic Federation in 2015, but let “clean athletes” participate under “neutral status”: no Russian flags or anthems. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, more accusations were brought against various Russian sports officials for “falsifying documents” and etc., and thus the suspensions continued.
President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government have strongly denied the allegations, calling them a political weapon of the West. Any appeals from Russian athletes have been denied. Some argued all countries cheated, why single out Russia? Others thought the Russians were being framed to keep their very strong athletes from competitions. It does seem odd that once your athletes were so scrutinized you would be careful to stop “doping.” In fact the stated goal of the Russian Sports Ministry at the end of 2021 was –once again—to have the Russian Athletic Federation and Anti-Doping Agency reinstated. The “West” has remained hostile toward Russian athletics. And this most certainly included Russian ice skaters: a sport where Russia has been at the very top for years.
Kamila Valieva had to skate under the same restraints that all Russian athletes face. But because she was so incredibly good, the skating world simply had to acknowledge her. In looking at her biographical data—there’s not much! She’s only 15; born in April of 2006 in Kazan, Russia. And she has a Pomeranian named Lena, a gift from a fan. Before she was five years old, her mother had her in gymnastics, ballet and skating, but after age five, it was only skating. In her first season out of junior ranking she had risen far above her opposition. She is the fourth woman to land a quadruple jump in competition and the first to do it in Olympic competition. Valieva set world records on her path to Grand Prix titles in Vancouver and Sochi, and the European Championships in Tallinn in January of this year. In Beijing the expectations for Kamila Valieva were very high. As one Russian journalist put it, she was so good in her short skate routine in Beijing that “even some western media outlets often so begrudging with their praise of Russian athletes were forced—perhaps through gritted teeth—to lavish praise on Valieva.” And when she competed next, for the Russian team, she did become the first woman to land a quad in Olympic history. But very soon after that, it was rumored there were “doping allegations” against Kamila Valieva. A test taken in December was only revealed just then—in the midst of the March Olympics. It seemed the Russians may not fare so well after all.
Of course the US also insisted on besting the Chinese athletes in Beijing, but added a nasty political narrative about their host. Sports analysts like Mike Tirico were pressed into service as experts on alleged Chinese abuses vs. Uyghurs (abuses debunked by reporters like Max Blumenthal), their “authoritarian” government, misguided Covid protocols, etc. American politicians and media had already prepped the US audience to be anti-Asian generally, by these supposed abuses and the potential of China becoming an even greater economic power—and unapologetically socialist as well. The COVID pandemic was their fault too; President Trump calling it “Kung Flu” or the “Chinese virus.” It was embarrassing to listen to the vitriolic commentary by US “analysts” with their long recanting of Chinese faults and crimes. Our ugly history with China started with the US involvement in the Opium War through the dangerous gradual encirclement of present-day China with US warships and bases placed on numerous unwilling Pacific islands, as John Pilger’s brilliant film “ The Coming War on China” illustrates. And the US had tried to help their bad faith anti-China Olympic campaign with a “diplomatic boycott” (which didn’t really catch on).
Another young woman athlete, Chinese-American Eileen Gu, also became a victim of the
Empire’s anger. Gu is 18; she has a Chinese mother and was raised in San Francisco. A brilliant world class freestyle skier, she has medalled in X Games, the World Championship and the Youth Olympics. Gu announced in 2019 that she would represent China in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. But she wasn’t called a traitor until the Olympics drew near.
Gu has said that she welcomes the opportunity to draw people to winter sports. The Chinese cheered her everywhere, but Americans not so much. She was derided for taking advantage of “premier training” in the US and then abandoning the US for China. Tucker Carlson said she had betrayed her country and “renounced” her citizenship. The New York Times portrayed Gu as an “anti-hero of the feminist ideal” since she chose China which supposedly oppresses women. At the other end of the political spectrum, right-wing social media echoed Carlson’s sentiments in calling for Gu to leave the country for her betrayal. Gu won three Olympic medals in freestyle skiing, two gold and a silver. Unfortunately for USA her three medals added to China’s total of 15 (with nine gold), best ever for China in a winter Olympics.
Eileen Gu also faces anti-female prejudice since extreme sports has always been male-dominated, although women do compete alongside the men. Gu thinks “as a young biracial woman, it is super important to be able to push boundaries. . . those of the sport and those of the record books because that’s what paves the paths for the next generation of girls.” So why does the country where she lives give her an incredibly hard time? As professor of sport Simon Chadwick said, “Her success is being weaponized and used for geopolitical purposes. This is incredibly unfair because she’s an 18-year-old athlete with a dual heritage family who just wants to try her best and make her parents proud, and yet she’s being turned into a geopolitical weapon.” Journalist Danny Haiphong has argued that Eileen Gu has chosen the “wrong” side by choosing to compete for a non-white, communist country. She is assaulting “American exceptionalism” –being a traitor to the “empire’s civilizing mission.” She should not be skiing for the “Chinese devils.” But Gu insists (on her Instagram) she hopes “to unite people, promote common understanding, create communication, and forge friendship.” And she has said: “I am also a teenage girl. I do my best to make the world a better place, and I’m having fun while doing it.” Not what the Empire is about.
Vietnamese-American Haiphong also has pointed out that some American athletes were not going for the Empire’s narrative that the Chinese were being bad hosts—inferior food, lodging, unreasonable COVID protocols, and so on. Snowboarder Tessa Maud refuted American media’s narrative and talked of the warm welcome she’d received by Chinese volunteers and how she loved the local cuisine . Skier Aaron Blunk went so far as to criticize American media coverage of the games on Twitter as often “completely false.” He called Beijing one of the better Olympics he’s been in, including the COVID protocols, the hosting: “It’s been phenomenal.” So Twitter suspended his account. As Haiphong put it: “Humanizing China represents a direct threat to the new Cold War Agenda.” The US must control the narrative, and that included not allowing China, or Russia, to shine.
The Empire certainly succeeded in taking the shine from the great Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva. Commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who had just called Valieva the “best skater in the world” with a “talent that comes once in a lifetime,” were about to change their minds. At Beijing, Valieva’s performance in the short skate was “a thing of great beauty.” Weir and Lipinski thought it “incredible.” Weir gushed about the interview he had been granted by the young Valieva. Her second performance was a free skate for the Russian team. She fell once but the skate was historic because as noted, she became the first woman in history to land a quad at the Olympics. She finished 30 points ahead of second place Kaori Sakamoto. Weir and Lipinski could not find enough superlatives.
All awaited what would no doubt be another historic performance by Valieva in the ladies singles event. But then rumors began that the medal ceremony, with Russia winning gold and the US silver—would be delayed. And then that “a Russian skater” had a positive doping test. Then it leaked it was Kamila Valieva, in spite of IOC rules that any accusation against a “minor” must remain secret. A test taken on December 25, sent to a Swedish lab, showed minute traces of trimetazidine, an “illegal” heart drug which may have some positive effect on athletic performance, although many argue it would not help skaters. Valieva’s family and coaching team believed she may have been exposed to it through her grandfather, who took the drug. The Russian team also said she had repeatedly tested negative before and after the positive sample. They said she was innocent. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) panel ruled she would not be suspended from the competition. A further investigation would happen later, now scheduled to conclude by mid-August.
Kamila Valieva rallied to lead the field in the ladies short program. This was when stalwart patriots Lipinski and Weir were too disgusted to watch. I remember these stalwarts as being very nasty in speaking of the Russian skaters both during the Sochi (Russia) Olympics in 2014, and the 2018 PyeongChang (South Korea) games (where “cleared” Russians could skate). Some observers found them “a breath of fresh air,” but others as “mean, obnoxious, distracting.” At any rate, they were outraged Valieva was allowed to perform. She was “ruining everything.” Their only comment after her performance was “she skated.” Getting their wish for her downfall, the scandal finally impacted her free skate and she finished fourth after stumbles and falls. Unfortunately for USA! Russian Alexandra Trusova won silver. Former Russian ice dancer champion Alexander Zhulin has said that international sports authorities will have to live with “ruining” Kamila Valieva’s Olympic dreams. He had never “seen Kamila so lost.” The IOC and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) “destroyed and removed the biggest star of figure skating.” The December 25 test was revealed after team Russia’s brilliant performance, capped by Valieva’s skate, won gold. It does seem like an American Empire kind of move.
Valieva’s coact Eteri Tutberidze, who, along with Kamila’s team, was (incredibly) criticized by the IOC’s Thomas Bach, for being “too cold.” Tutberidze said Kamila was “our star.” “Those who smiled yesterday—today left the stands demonstrably ignoring and pouncing like jackals.” There were reporters, especially the British, who followed her around at practice, yelling “Are you a doper?” Valieva addressed her Beijing experience in two “emotional instagrams” in late February. She thanked her coaches for “helping me to be strong.” And she thanked all who “were with me during this tough period . . who did not let me lose heart. . and who believed in me.” A few weeks later she was on the ice again.
Kamila participated in the “Channel One Cup” Russian skating (competitive) exhibition, since Russian skaters were banned from the Worlds. Valieva skated a “simplified” program, but said the experience of being out on the ice was “exhilarating.” Anna Shcherbakova won the women’s event. Valieva has said that the Olympics should not be “idealized” and her “journey is just beginning.” In a recent interview with “People Talk” she said she can be “cocky, obnoxious, stubborn, insecure.” But also “sociable, cheerful, active, and of course, romantic…” In skating programs, her coaches see her in “lyrical images,” but she wants to be “different in programs: a hooligan, daring, bold.” She is a typical teenager, but also very intelligent, a brilliant athlete and a targeted enemy of Empire.
Sportswriters can be very effective operatives for Empire. My favorite is probably Christine Brennan. I had admired Brennan as one of the team of reporters on HBO’s “Real Sports,” although unfortunately now they seem more apt to take a corporate line than do the critical reporting they used to do. Brennan accused Valieva, and Russia, of turning the Winter Games “into a bizarre and troubling fiasco” because of their “state-sponsored doping.” She said Valieva “would have been favored to win” the Worlds in Montpelier, but she “crumbled under the scrutiny of her positive drug test.” When Americans won the pairs skating title at Worlds, their first since 1979, Brennan wrote: “No Russia? No China? No problem.” And “few will miss them.” The Beijing medal count had USA with 25 medals, behind Norway, Russia, Germany and Canada, much like their finish at PyeongChang. The Russians had 32 medals, with six gold; the Chinese had 15, with nine gold; USA! had a paltry 25, with eight gold, well behind Russia. Totally unacceptable.
Of course by the World Championships, more than Valieva and her fellow skaters were ousted from competition. It was all Russia, all the time—everyone Russian was out because the World Federations of all the sports, influenced and/or bludgeoned into it, had banned them all because of the Russian military action in Ukraine. This was the Russian response to being encircled with troops and NATO forces, and a Nazi-led government provided by the US in Ukraine in 2014, which had been attacking the Russian-language population of eastern Ukraine since that 2014 coup. An unprecedented campaign of Western propaganda and lies is in full swing, definitely McCarthyite in its depth and with parallel lasting and dangerous results to come. In the 1950s Ethel Rosenberg was executed for being a communist wife—a wife who either evilly influenced her husband Julius to reveal atomic secrets to the Russians or did not, as was her duty, stop him from doing so. Julius Rosenberg, executed with his wife, was reputedly worried that if the US gained too much power without a balance from the Soviets, it would lead to a dangerous situation. And he was right. The US government has become an Empire that will tolerate no state competitor, nor even states who will not line up and stay with the American Empire’s plans. This is very clear in the world of sport—certainly in the supposedly apolitical Olympic world.
To punish Russia, the US/Europe have gone totally insane with their bans and sanctions. Many sanctions such as Russian energy, will only punish Europe; others involve outright piracy as in US allies helping themselves to Russian yachts. The list goes on, but in the world of sport—athletes from Russia and its close ally Belarus are banned “until further notice” from international skiing, track and field events, tennis, basketball, aquatic sports, volleyball, curling, hockey, rugby, football (soccer), and of course, skating. Many of these sports have Russian champions, and they, as Christine Brennan put it, “will not be missed.” A few officials have objected, and paid for it. Russian sports officials say they will “temporarily” develop their own competitions, with foreign athletes. They say the western world is committing “sporting genocide” against its athletes.
So Kamila Valieva and company will skate at home, and Eileen Gu will still be considered a traitor by many Americans. The hate expressed by Tara Lipinski and Christine Brennan is too easily tapped by the American sportsworld. Here is hegemonic politics, and ruthless patriarchy and racism, coming together. And here are two remarkably strong and level-headed young women athletes who are braving the results of being who they are. In its overwhelming power, the US Empire has made evil all things Chinese and Russian, and women athletes have not been spared the weaponizing of that hate.