That number has always disturbed me. The reason being, it is the average age of all Olympians who represented East Germany in women’s swimming. East Germany’s success in women’s swimming is remembered for being one of the most dominant programs to ever exist. While Nadia Comaneci and Nellie Kim were trading Perfect-10s with each other in gymnastics at the 1976 Olympics, in women’s swimming the East German women won gold medals in 11 of 13 events. They went on to maintain that same level of success in the 1980s as well.
The East Germans ruled with impunity but their only lasting legacy is infamy. East Germany’s swimming program was “ground zero” in the East German doping scandal and its doping abuse was so widespread, it is widely speculated that most members of the East German Olympic swim team were doped, if not all. In what is often the case in East German doping scandals, many of the athletes were doped without their knowledge or consent.
East Germany’s women’s swimming program is remembered for being the most infamous program in doping history. But what is rarely talked about is that it was one of the youngest programs in any particular country/sport.
From its official Olympic debut in 1968 to its very last appearance in 1988, when every single one of its Olympic athletes are listed together, the final number in women’s swimming is an average age of 17.119 years old. The only way such a figure is possible, is if you have tones of 13, 14, and 15 year olds offsetting the 19 year olds.
Statistically, 1 in every 4 of East German Olympic swimmers had not yet celebrated her 16th birthday. Of the 84 appearances a female East German swimmer made in the Olympics, 53 of them went to an athlete who was not yet 18 years of age. There were seven examples of a female swimmer who was only 13 or 14 years old.
The Kamila Valieva story has embarrassed Russia, but also the IOC. It has exposed the connection between the Olympic Games and child abuse. It has also been a spectacular embarrassment for every institution that played a hand in extending Russia leniency at each step in Russia’s state-sponsored doping scandal.
Even before Beijing-2022 those who had played a hand in granting Russia so much leeway were in a precarious position with many believing the sanctions on Russia had been far too light. Russia had been allowed continued participation, the number of years Russia was banned from using its official name had been lowered, and Vladimir Putin was able to attend the Olympic Games despite his country supposedly being banned. Then the country was able circumvent bans on its national symbols, and finally, there were the seven stripped medals from the 2014 Olympics that were returned to Russian athletes.
The last thing all the foreign officials who granted Russia leniency needed, along with all the Russian officials who falsely asserted the Russia was reformed, was an embarrassing doping incident at the Beijing 2022 Olympics.
The Kamila Valieva story could not have been any more disastrous for all parties involved. Finally, all of those who had a hand in mismanaging the Russian doping scandal were burned by a high-profile case. It is hard to find a more devastating worst-case scenario than a popular gold medal favorite in the most high-profile Winter sport, and she just so happened to be a child. And then on top of it all, Valieva was still able to compete. Valieva actually being granted the ability to continue competing was the cherry on top in a storyline of how the Russian doping scandal has made everything a mockery.
For too long officials have tried to simply manage the Russian state-sponsored doping scandal and merely looked to get past it. What they didn’t do was give the scandal the urgency it needed. The urgency was not trying to make things fair for clean athletes like Mariah Bell, Karen Chen, and Alysa Liu. But identifying that this behavior needed to be stamped out because any environment where state-sponsored doping exists creates an environment where athlete abuse is also rampant.
You simply can not have a state-sponsored doping program without child doping existing along with it. The existence of a state-sponsored doping program means the existence of a “win at all costs” mentality where nothing is off limits. The existence of a state-sponsored doping program means the existence of a training environment where athlete abuse is openly tolerated. In any such environment where athlete abuse is tolerated, the burden will always fall disproportionately on its most vulnerable.
The younger the athlete is, the less likely he/she is to question an authority figure or identify that certain behavior is wrong. Younger athletes have less independence and thus are not well positioned to abandon a coach who engages in unethical coaching habits.
The existence of state-sponsored doping which only serves to normalize athlete abuse at best, at worst it gives coaches open confirmation that they have a green light to commit any form of athlete abuse if it results in medals. In this environment, when the well-being of the athlete is of such little concern, mental abuse, physical abuse, and sexual abuse also skyrocket as well.
The youngest known victim of the East German doping scandal was only seven years old. The never-ending horror stories of East German athletics doesn’t just involve their Olympic athletes, but non-Olympians suffered as well. East German officials needed to test which types and combination of drugs worked best, and which could bypass doping control. They were not going to risk ruining their Olympic athletes with these types of experiments, so lower ranking athletes bore the burden of being subjected to drug cocktails with no purpose other than human experimentation.
That was what occurred within the body of athletes who were doped with the approval of East German officials. But once state-sponsored is introduced to a sports league, it poisons the whole well. Lower ranking coaches who were fielding clean athletes knew their results were being compared to rival coaches who had doped athletes. In response, they began doping their own athletes in order to keep pace. Suddenly, athletes who had no chance of ever appearing in an Olympic Games were subjected to doping. All in the name of coaches trying to make their results look better in minor competitions. State-sponsored doping is a cancer that destroys an entire system once implemented.
The East German athletes were not just given steroids, but anything that would result in better results. The East German rhythmic gymnastics program featured an infamous case where athletes were complaining that they suffered intense physical pain whenever they went home to visit their parents. But the pain would mysteriously disappear upon returning to their training gym.
It eventually became a pressing issue as the parents could not figure out why this was happening and worried that their children were beginning to avoid opportunities to visit home. It would later be discovered that the culprit was a heavy use of pain medication during their training, and the discomfort the gymnasts experienced while visiting home was the effect of their bodies undergoing withdrawal.
The lasting legacy of East German doping were the ramifications on quality of life and life expectancy. Some estimates putting the loss of life expectancy at 10-12 years. Swimmer Rica Reinisch won three gold medals at the 1980 Olympics when she was only 15 years old. She retired at 16 years old after collapsing in a training hall and when brought to a doctor it was discovered she was suffering from enlarged ovaries. As an adult the lasting damage to her reproductive system resulted in two miscarriages.
This is what a state-sponsored scheme looks like. It was a matter of “when” not “if” we were going to see corresponding Russian cases of child athletes being doped as well. You will be hard pressed to find a sport where athletes don’t reach an elite level before their 18th birthday. Even the Olympic sports that have age limits at around 18 years old, they still have complementary junior divisions for those of a lessor age. The task of building an Olympic level athlete starts long before his or her Olympic debut. Creating a situation where the high-stakes training methods start far earlier as well.
At every opportunity the sanctions against Russia were gutted by governing bodies, the IOC, and sports arbitrators. At various points Russia was able to run circles against doping control in the way it was able to survive the scandal with so little lasting punishment. While I’m still unsure if a total blanket ban from 2016-2022 would have been the best solution, the IOC/arbitrators could have done a heck of a lot better in finding sanctions that didn’t punish innocent athletes, but put Russia in a position where it was forced to clean house.
Everyone who had a hand in punishing Russia seemed more concerned in making sure the clean athletes were given the medals that rightfully belonged to them, and doing something that was a middle ground between not antagonizing Russia and avoiding an international public relations backlash if the IOC went too soft on doping. In that time the urgency this scandal needed was completely disregarded. The human cost of what a state-sponsored doping scheme entails fell to the wayside. The connection between state-sponsored doping and child doping was ignored entirely.
The history of the Russian doping scandal is that time and time again it was not treated with the urgency it required in the form of tougher sanctions. The longer it went without being seriously addressed increased the likelihood that eventually a case of child doping would appear. In the end that’s exactly what happened.
These cases were bound to exist, but the possibility of a high profile child doping case didn’t register to various officials as Russia skirted significant sanctions. Russia should have been penalized harder in an attempt to discourage doping and along with it, child-doping. By not stamping out doping in Russian athletics, they failed to prevent child athletes from being doped as well.
Kamila Valieva is likely to become the most infamous example in the entire history of Russian doping. The IOC and various other institutions including arbitrators, CAS, RUSADA, ISU, to any Russian official who touted their program was now reformed all have egg on their face because of Kamila Valieva. In the end it was one of the very child athletes they failed to protect that has brought upon them one of the biggest gaffes in Olympic history by letting a 3x banned Olympic Committee destroy the integrity of yet another Olympic event.