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Brittney Griner’s Kafkaesque nightmare

Russia has sent more illegally drug-enhanced athletes to the Olympics than any other country. Its doping is done on an industrial scale. For the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russia set up a secret laboratory that provided banned substances to its athletes and fake urine samples to Olympic anti-doping officials. 

Yet American Brittney Griner, an WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist, was arrested in February at a Moscow airport and jailed for possessing two vape cartridges with less than a gram of hashish oil that had been prescribed to her by a physician for pain relief. 

In most places she would have been home by now, but because she faces up to 10 years in a Russian prison and a conviction is a near certainty, in the hopes of obtaining leniency she pleaded guilty to possessing the cartridges.

At the same time, she insisted that she had inadvertently packed the cartridges in her luggage and had no intention of violating Russian law. At her trial, an official and a player from her Russian basketball team, UMMC Ekaterinburg, for which she had come to play during the WNBA’s off-season, testified as character witnesses in her defense. “She played a big role in the success of the Ekaterinburg club and Russian women’s basketball as a whole,” said Maxim Rybakov, the club director.

But she’s not home, and this gifted athlete’s life is now a Kafkaesque nightmare.

Contrast Griner with Kamila Valieva, the 16-year-old Russian figure skater who tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance, before the 2022 Winter Olympic. The test result was disclosed only after her skating performance helped Russia win the women’s figure skating team gold medal.

When the International Olympic Committee attempted to bar her from competing in more events, Valieva asserted the same lack of intent defense as Griner, in her case that she had been mistakenly contaminated by her grandfather’s heart medication. She was allowed to continue competing in the Olympics, but a decision on whether she violated antidoping regulations is pending, and she could still be stripped of a gold medal.

None of that, of course, stopped Russian President Vladimir Putin from honoring Valieva and other Russian Olympians at a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin. He showered praise on the Russian figure skating team and handed out state awards. He especially singled out Valieva, saying that “such perfection cannot be achieved dishonestly with the help of additional substances, manipulations.” 

But that’s exactly how many Russian Olympic athletes won their medals. Since 2012, 31 Russian athletes have been stripped of their Olympic medals for antidoping violations, without counting the disqualified athletes who failed to medal, which makes Russia the world leader in Olympic doping.

After the massive doping of Russian athletes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Putin awarded the doping mastermind, Grigory Rodchenkov, director of Russia’s antidoping agency, with the prestigious Order of Friendship. Rodchenkov later fled Russia, fearing for his life, and disclosed the doping scheme. But two of his colleagues still in Russia died within weeks of each other. Putin and his government claim that the United States fabricated the doping allegations to delegitimize Russia. 

Brittney Griner is the tragic victim of circumstances: rising geopolitical tensions from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, her status as a gay Black woman in an intensely homophobic country, Russia’s cruel nature, which the world has started to fully appreciate in the last few months and Vladimir Putin’s hatred of the United States.

Unless the Biden administration can free her, perhaps in a prisoner exchange since she is effectively a prisoner of war, she could be in a Russian prison for a long time. So long that, if history is any guide, Griner could be watching on a prison television as Russian athletes in successive Olympics win medals using illegal substances to enhance their performance, and receive accolades from Vladimir Putin.

Americans should be very angry about what has happened to Brittney Griner.

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor in the Carter and Reagan administrations, where he was a member of the ABSCAM prosecution team that convicted a U.S. senator and six congressmen of bribery. He is working on a book about a 19th century American journalist who investigated the Siberian exile system. Follow him on Twitter @gregorywallance.

Tags Brittney Griner Brittney Griner Brittney Griner detention Kamila Valieva Russia Vladimir Putin Vladimir Putin Winter Olympics World Anti-Doping Agency

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