It’s not always about winning

When sport is not fun, it loses something essential, something that makes it unique, something that is not just business or politics or indeed medal-winning.

What a fall!: Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee slips while competing in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics figure skating event. The 15-year-old already considered one of the greatest figure skaters, failed a drug test taken in December, but was allowed to compete because she was a minor and since the six-week delay in getting the result was not her fault.   -  REUTERS

The contrast at the Winter Olympics was sharp and telling. On the one hand, there was Russia’s Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old already considered one of the greatest figure skaters. She failed a drug test taken in December, but was allowed to compete because she was a minor and since the six-week delay in getting the result was not her fault.

This is a commentary on our win-at-all-costs philosophy, which Russia, in recent years, has turned into an art form.

On the other hand, there is Norway, where enjoyment of sport is a national programme, and where children are encouraged to take up sport to relish it. There are no competitions till they get past the age of 13. Norway topped the medals table at the Olympics.

You can’t blame Valieva for the mess she is in. She is part of a system which believes that winning is everything and anything done towards that end is justified. And that the effect on young bodies and minds do not matter.

Winning to the exclusion of everything else is not quite the Olympic motto where participation is the key. But say that to Alexandra Trusova who won a silver in figure skating. This was her reaction: “I will never go out on the ice again. Never! I hate this sport! I’m not going to the awards! Everyone has a gold medal. Only I don’t. I hate it all!”

The media’s role is not inconsiderable. We love the cute, unspoilt athlete and squeeze many young competitors into an image of our making. This is additional pressure on the athlete, this play-acting which is necessary to attract the endorsements. Sport is torture for them.

Norway’s sports programme is based on the opposite of torture. Fun. It is calculated that 93 per cent of the children in the country participate in sport. The joke is that Norwegian kids learn to ski at the same time as they learn to walk. But it means a country of just five million is able to overtake countries with large populations like Russia (146 million).

When sport is not fun, it loses something essential, something that makes it unique, something that is not just business or politics or indeed medal-winning.

But it’s not just fun in Norway, of course. Promising talent is tracked from a young age, and Norway’s research into suits and sensors meant that their natural advantages are added to. They also train competitors from other countries to ensure they have competition in the international field. This is quite incredible.

Valieva is already a symbol of something beyond figure skating.By the 2026 Olympics, she will be 19 — old age for skaters! Her coach Eteri Tutberidze is known for her tough, almost inhuman methods. The IOC President called her behaviour “chilling” after she screamed at Valieva for not winning her final event, leading to the athlete’s tearful exit. Russia and Norway occupy two ends of the scale. The future of sport depends on which system others choose to follow.