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Wunderkinder are too valuable for the Olympic system to set age limits

Kamila Valieva' doping case raised questions about a minimum age for Olympic athletes. The Games thrive on high-performing children – some of them so young that they are not even allowed to compete in the Youth Olympic Games. Children are vulnerable to authoritarian states chasing medals and glory.

Kamila Valieva. (Photo: NOC of Russia.)

Why it is so hard for Olympic sports federations to set age limits? The age rules are defined very differently in the seven Olympic winter sports federations. It is no different among the summer sports federations. Age regulations sometimes differ even within these federations, depending on the sport, discipline, or gender. In the International Skating Union (ISU), a proposal to raise the minimum age in figure skating from fifteen to seventeen years failed most recently in June 2018. Of course, at the ISU congress at the time, the Russians also voted against this proposal.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced the Youth Olympic Games (YOG) at its 2007 Session in Guatemala. Why are there these global competitions called YOG, when at the same time children participate in – how shall we say: real – Olympic Games? Why is there so little coordination? Why has not even the IOC, as the sole owner of these circus events, reminded us of these Youth Games in the bitter discussions of the past weeks?

Some answers to these questions are: Because there are no clear, plausible age rules. The rules have been interpreted and changed for ages to suit the needs of the moment. And so, when – as in the case of Valieva – the whole world watches children obviously being abused as human material by medal scoundrels, then crocodile tears flow. Then the IOC president Thomas Bach, whose marketing department also turns children’s high-performance sport into money, talks about the values and lack of empathy of Kamila Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze and the entire entourage.

Some thoughts on competitive sport in totalitarian systems

Before I go into the question of age limits in more detail, I would first like to express some thoughts on competitive sport in totalitarian systems. Because one is definitely related to the other.

According to everything that is known about Russian competitive sport, the state doping system around the irregular 2014 Winter Russian doping Olympics in Sochi and precisely the regime of Eteri Tutberidze, this perfectly meets the definition of a totalitarian system. What did Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Russia’s eternal president Vladimir Putin, say the day after the girls‘ and women’s figure skating competition in Beijing?

„Everyone knows that this toughness is the key to victory in elite sport.“

And what did Russia’s deputy prime minister Dmitry Chernyshenko, the CEO of the organising committee of the irregular 2014 Sochi Olympics, say?

The Olympic Games are the „pinnacle of professional sport“ for all athletes.

„Every single athlete bears the hopes and dreams of their entire nation for their success. That is a known pressure, and it is also what drives them forward, with a fighting spirit.“
Warmonger with skating darling. (Photo: President of Russia)

Perhaps I may say at this point that I grew up in a totalitarian state where such words were part of the state doctrine. In a small state called the German Democratic Republic (GDR) that was enclosed by walls and fences made of barbed wire and that put on an incomparably gigantic performance at the Olympic Games. That performed on a par with the superpowers USA and Soviet Union, winning the medal table once at the Winter Olympics (1984 in Sarajevo), twice finishing second at the Summer Games (1976 in Montreal, 1988 in Seoul) – both times behind the Soviet Union, whose collapse Vladimir Putin once described as the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.

Warmonger with skating coach Tutberidze. (Photo: President of Russia)

Propaganda slogans like those we have heard from Russian but also Chinese officials lately were drilled into me in my childhood and youth and in my first years as an adult. So on that day, when the nomenclature cadres Peskov and Chernyshenko, the loyal servants of their lord and master Vladimir Putin, defended the brutal coach Tutberidze and demanded toughness from skating children, I had to think of Marita Koch. She was one of the heroines of my childhood in the GDR, who celebrated her 65th birthday exactly on that day.

The world star who was not allowed to stop

Marita Koch was a world star. She set fifteen world records in Olympic disciplines. She became an Olympic champion. She was the victim of an Olympic boycott. She was World and European champion. She has held the world record in the 400 metres since October 1985 in Canberra – 47,60 seconds. It is the second oldest world record in athletics and will probably last for all eternity. Marita Koch was awarded the title of World athlete of the year three times. 

She was doped, like thousands of other GDR athletes – and thousands of other Olympic athletes from all over the world since then.

The allegedly doped 15-year-old Kamila Valieva and Marita Koch are one and the same side of the coin. Both come from totalitarian Olympic systems from which there was and is no escape. 

The Olympic system, indeed this whole industry, is based on such totalitarian systems – and it is to a large extent itself a totalitarian system, as we see with the IOC and with almost all Olympic federations.

Such systems have existed for decades. Just like Kamila Valieva, Marita Koch was also a victim at some point when doping began. And even as a star and Olympic champion, it was almost impossible for her to escape this system. I don’t want to defend Marita Koch, but I would like to describe a process that illustrates how this system dominated at all levels.

„I don’t want European championship titles, I want Olympic victories.“

After the world record in Canberra in 1985, Marita Koch wanted to end her career. She was 28 years old. She wanted to focus on her studies. She was tired. She wanted a child. 

But Marita Koch was not only a world star – she was a super star in the GDR, a reliable heroine in the production of medals and records. They had other plans for her. They had other orders for her. So, the GDR sports dictator Manfred Ewald forbade the grown woman to have a child and end her career. 

Instead, Ewald wanted Koch to continue until the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. Erich Honecker, Head of State and Chairman of the Communist Party had already promised IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch that the GDR would participate in the next Olympic Games. This was one of the reasons why Samaranch presented him with the Olympic Order at the 1985 IOC session in East Berlin; the same Order with which Thomas Bach adorned China’s State and Party Leader Xi Jinping.

In Seoul, the first Games after the two big boycotts of Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984), the GDR wanted to take first place in the medal table. That was Ewald’s dream. That was the party’s order. That was the plan.

Many years ago, I found a handwritten letter from Marita Koch in the archives of the communist party (SED) and the GDR Sports Federation (DTSB) after the archives were opened to the public after the German unification.  I don’t know if the letter I am quoting from here, and which I handed over to Marita Koch myself years ago, was ever published. In January 1986, she had sent this letter to the regional party leader of Rostock county, where she lived, asking him for support.

In it, Koch offered two things: First, she declared her willingness to give a propaganda speech at the upcoming communist party congress in East Berlin; second, she declared her willingness to still participate in the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart. In return, however, she asked the party leadership, the Politburo, to assert itself against the sports chief Ewald (who in turn was a member of the extended party leadership).

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