Svetlana Khorkina, one of the greatest Russian gymnasts of all time, was frequently called a diva—a title she fully embraced—throughout most of her career. She earned this appellation for the drama she brought to her performances, especially on the floor exercise, and her outspokenness in the media. (Let’s just say I doubt that Khorkina, when asked by a reporter before a meet what she hoped for in the competition, would respond with some variation of, “I just want to go 4-for-4 and give it my best.”)
Many gymnastics fans had a love/hate relationship with the two-time Olympic gold medalist and three-time world all-around champion. And even though she retired more than a decade ago, she’s still managing to antagonize fans of the sport. In her just published memoir, The Magic of Victory, Khorkina spends the early chapters going after U.S. gymnast Simone Biles and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Let’s start with Biles. Shortly after last summer’s Olympics, Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking organization, released the doping testing results of Biles and other U.S. Olympic gold medalists, including Venus and Serena Williams. The leaked results revealed that Biles tested positive for a substance that is banned, but had received a “therapeutic use exemption” (TUE) to take Ritalin to treat her attention deficiency and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In response to the hack, Biles publicly acknowledged that she suffered from ADHD and had been taking medication for it since she was a young child.
The revelation that Biles and the Williams sisters received TUEs was big news in Russia, especially since many of their athletes had been unable to compete at the Rio Olympics because they tested positive for banned substances.
“It turns out that leading international gymnast, American Simone Biles has been getting a therapeutic exemption for some time now! She is so sick, that she requires potent drugs, that help her concentrate! How is she participating in this kind of sport, which requires from its athletes constant super-concentration! She’s going to die! Don’t her parents feel sorry for her?! Don’t her parents feel sorry for her?!”
It’s important to note that Khorkina’s statements about Biles and her use of medication to control her ADHD are shaped, in part, by the Russian public’s view of those conditions. According to gymnastics blogger Luba, though ADHD is an official diagnosis in Russia, many Russians don’t believe it exists, and it is definitely under-diagnosed. Further, the drugs that we in the West use to treat ADHD symptoms—Ritalin, etc.—are illegal in Russia, and are actually listed in the same class of drugs as heroin and cocaine.
This is perhaps why Khorkina writes in language dripping with faux concern about Biles being “sick.” For Khorkina and many other Russians, if you need a drug that is so powerful that it is classified with heavy-duty drugs like heroine and cocaine, that must mean you’re very sick, indeed.
Khorkina seems to believe that these drug confer a superhuman ability to concentrate on those who take it:
“In reality, experts understand that these drugs help the athlete control her psychological-emotional state; she’s not worried, not upset, nothing is distracting her from executing her moves… And it means that her competitors have to be in a state of stress, be upset, be worries and because of that, make some slight flaws in executing moves and obviously lose to the American.”
Clearly Khorkina never watched the 2013 Secret Classic where Biles, who was already on Ritalin, went 0-for-3 before being scratched from the final event by her coach. And she hasn’t watched much footage from Biles’ wildly inconsistent junior career. The consistency and focus that Khorkina described wasn’t the result of a magic pill; it took years of practice and work with a sports psychologist to achieve.
Here’s the thing: If Biles returns to form and to international gymnastics competition, she will probably win additional world championship medals. This means that one of Khorkina’s few remaining records—most world championships medals won by a female gymnast—might be in danger. At the moment, Khorkina’s record stands at 20 while Biles sits in third place on the list with 14. But Khorkina’s medals were won over a 10-year period—from 1994 to 2003—while Biles won all of hers over the course of four years. (Biles already holds the record for most world championships gold medals won by a female gymnast.) If Biles returns to peak form and competes at the world championships during this Olympic cycle, there’s a good chance she’ll break Khorkina’s record.
Khorkina also did not mince words when it came to WADA:
“Such draconian, maybe even ‘Nazi-like’ methods they use—I’ve experienced them more than once. When I you have post-competition stress, euphoria of victory, or disappointment of defeat, when you don’t want to drink, eat or go to the bathroom—they force you to drink and submit a doping sample, to speed up the doping-control procedure, otherwise the result will be taken from the finished protocol.”
(This is, of course, just what the Nazis were notorious for: testing the urine of Jews and other persecuted groups for banned substances. The Nazis wanted your slave labor in their munitions factories, but they wanted you to reach your quota through clean work.)
While I get that it was probably not fun for Khorkina—or any athlete, for that matter—to have their post-competition emotional rollercoaster derailed for the sake of handing over a urine sample, this is perhaps not the most effective way of drawing attention to the legitimately degrading and unpleasant realities of drug testing. (Khorkina describes an unfortunate incident that happened to her teammate, 2000 double Olympic gold medalist Elena Zamolodchikova. According to Khorkina, Zamolodchikova struggled to provide a urine sample to WADA after the conclusion of a competition but wasn’t allowed to retire to her quarters for the night until she had provided the sample, which meant that she was kept awake until just a few hours before she had to get up to prepare to compete the following day.)
In another part of the book, Khorkina discusses waking up in Athens, where she competed at her last Olympics, by way of making a racist remark about the appearance of the Chinese gymnasts:
Back in 2004, at a magical villa in Athens, I woke up one morning with puffy eyes and I looked like a girl from the Chinese delegation.
This was just a passing reference—not a longer screed such as the one she wrote about Biles—but you still wish that an editor had jumped in and said, “I think ‘puffy eyes’ is descriptive enough for the reader. Why don’t you stop right there?”