Athletes including 1994 Olympic figure skating champion Oksana Baiul have fought sports officials to an uneasy compromise—one ice show at a time
January 1, 2024
The Wall Street Journal
When a rink in northern Virginia planned an ice show featuring Russian ice dancers last summer, it skated into a formidable opponent: Oksana Baiul. The 1994 Olympic champion found out that the show’s billed main attraction were Diana Davis and Gleb Smolkin—she the daughter of the notorious Russian skating coach Eteri Tutberidze—and thought their appearance would undermine the ban on Russians competing imposed after the invasion of Ukraine. So she leapt into action, texting an official at U.S. Figure Skating and asking pointed questions.
The incident was a sign of the lengths to which Ukrainian athletes have been willing to go to enforce sports sanctions against Russia and its ally Belarus—one ice show and coaching clinic at a time—and how Ukraine’s current and former competitors have embodied the mentality of a country fighting for its survival.
The campaign they have waged also helps to explain the uneasy compromise the International Olympic Committee confirmed in December for 2024’s Olympic Games in Paris: most Russian athletes will be barred and only screened individual competitors who have shown no public support for the war will be allowed, from sports whose international federations are willing to let them in.
It’s a solution that satisfies practically nobody except the Olympic leaders who said it would be discriminatory to lock out athletes solely on the basis of their passport. Russian officials are livid at the restrictions, while Ukrainians have threatened to boycott over any Russian presence. At the same time, the 2024 plan is tougher action than the IOC has ever taken against Russia before, including when it allowed Russian athletes into the last three Olympics under a pseudonym in response to an epic doping scandal.
Working from her phone at home in Shreveport, La., the skater now known as Oksana Baiul-Farina is easily the most recognizable sports figure in the Ukrainian operation, in which athletes have scoured the Internet for potential violations of individual sports federations’ Russian bans, and amassed evidence of Russian star athletes’ backing for the conflict.
Now 46 and a longtime U.S. resident, with an American husband and an 8-year-old daughter, the skater best known for edging out Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Olympics is also like almost any other Ukrainian abroad. Baiul-Farina says she watched the invasion of her homeland from her kitchen, shaking in horror, and feeling powerless to help. Then she found her answer, in keeping Russian athletes out of global sports, particularly once the IOC seemed inclined to let them back.
“I am the first Olympic champion for the country of Ukraine,” said Baiul-Farina. “I said, no, no, no, here I can help. I’m not going to keep it quiet, this is my area.”
When IOC President Thomas Bach indicated he wanted at least some Russian and Belarusian athletes at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, competing as “neutral athletes” without national insignia, because global sports couldn’t survive “full politicization,” Ukrainian sports stars responded by shooting videos speaking directly to him.
There was boxer Wladimir Klitschko in front of a bombed-out building—and Baiul, wearing a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian Olympic tracksuit from 1994, which she said was far too big for her to wear back then. “We Ukrainians did not start it. This is why we don’t want for neutral athletes, athletes from Russia to participate in [the] 2024 Olympic Games. Help us,” she urged in Russian, accompanied by English subtitles. She has put back the tracksuit back on for television interviews since.
Then came the skating show at the Ion International Training Center—which went ahead without the ice dancers Davis and Smolkin. The rink’s chief executive Mitra Setayesh says that nobody at U.S. Figure Skating told her to pull them. Smolkin said they didn’t perform because they wanted to focus on preparing for getting back to competition—soon after, they left the Russian team to get around the competitive ban, and made their debut representing Georgia instead. “We wanted to compete internationally,” said Smolkin, “and when we finally realized we aren’t going to be allowed to, we started to see what our options could be. Since Diana is Georgian, we’ve made a decision.”
In the 22 months since the war began, the tension around Russian participation has played out in sport after sport. In skating alone there has been a multitude of incidents. When the Ukrainian skater Viktor Petrenko performed in a show in Russia, he was ousted from the Ukrainian skating federation and the Ukrainian government stripped him of a stipend. Petrenko won a gold medal skating for the Unified Team at the 1992 Olympics.
A master class by Olympic silver medalist Alexandra Trusova in Sweden was canceled after pressure, the U.S. skating association dropped plans to have a Russian coach at an elite American pairs skating training session, and another Russian coach was disinvited from a skating camp in France after Ukrainian athletes sent the host of the camp examples of the coach’s support for the invasion. “We have a team who is checking social media, Instagram, Facebook,” said Maksym Nikitin, a two-time Ukrainian Olympian in ice dance. “We are following all of the Russian coaches and people, we are checking where they are and what they are trying to do.”
Nikitin and his fellow volunteers have assembled a detailed database of skaters’ affiliations with the Russian government and vocal backing of the war, with screenshotted statements, photographs, and video. Coaching in the Netherlands, Nikitin has been reaching for his phone to resume his research during breaks for the ice to be resurfaced. He hasn’t always had to look far for examples. The database includes his Russian former coach, and his Russian former training partners and friends, Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, who are shown appearing prominently at a large stadium rally in March 2022 in support of the invasion, wearing the Z symbol associated with it.
Other Ukrainian athletes have maintained similar efforts for other sports. The reconnaissance work, they hope, will make it harder for sports officials to justify any of Russia’s most famous sportspeople appearing at big international competitions—like the Olympics. Baiul-Farina said she had no animosity toward Russians—just Russians who had affiliated themselves with Vladimir Putin’s government. She scoffed at the idea that any top Russian athletes could be considered neutral, pointing to the government’s financial support of them throughout their careers, and the expectations on them to back the state in return. On the same weekend as the ice show in Leesburg, Va., the council of the International Skating Union was meeting in Budapest and deciding to maintain their competition ban, at least for now. “At the official meeting when they decided not to allow Russians and Belarusians back in figure skating,” Baiul-Farina said, “I cried like I did at the Olympic Games.”
Louise Radnofsky is a sports reporter for the Wall Street Journal, where she writes about legal, policy and political issues. She has reported in depth on athlete abuse, the transformation of college sports, the fight over the future of golf, the sports world’s response to Covid, and the prisoner exchange between the U.S. and Russia that freed basketball star Brittney Griner. She is particularly interested in gymnastics and figure skating, and has covered those sports at four Olympic Games for the Journal, including Simone Biles’s performances in the 2016 Games in Rio and the delayed 2020 Games in Tokyo, as well as the doping scandal around Kamila Valieva that rocked the 2022 Games in Beijing. She previously covered health policy, the White House, and immigration policy for the Journal, and she continues to live in Washington, D.C. with her family. She joined the Journal in March 2008 as a news assistant in the Washington bureau. Louise was born in Memphis, Tenn. and grew up near London. She has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from University College, Oxford, and a master’s from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.