Valieva’s drug test raises more questions than it answers

Kamila Valieva is a supremely talented, once in a lifetime figure skater. At 15, she holds the world record for the women’s short program, free skate and total scores. She is the 2022 Russian National Champion and 2022 European Champion. And this is in her first year competing at the senior level. All at 15. The Olympics was supposed to be her official crowning, a real star is born moment. Instead, a controversy is born. A day after helping Russia earn gold in the team skating event, where Valieva again almost broke one of her own records and became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, Valieva tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine from a sample taken after her win at the Russian national championship. The medal ceremony for the team event was subsequently delayed and Valieva suspended––at least for one day. 24 hours after provisionally suspending Valieva on Feb. 8, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) lifted their suspension on Feb. 9 allowing her to compete in the women’s singles competition.

It is a saga of strange twists, jumps and falls, destined to dominate headlines of international skating for years to come. After a whirlwind week of medal ceremonies, then no medal ceremonies, suspensions imposed, then lifted, and many news conferences and Twitter discussions, more questions emerged than answers. Why did it take so long for the drug results to come in? Why is a 15 year-old testing positive for trimetazidine, a heart medication? Who is giving her these medications? Who knew? And most importantly, should she be allowed to compete?

According to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Skating Union (ISU) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Valieva should continue to be suspended. After RUSADA lifted their suspension, the three governing bodies filed formal appeals. Those appeals led to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) hearing the case on Feb. 13, and, ultimately, upholding the lifted suspension on Feb. 14, a day before the women’s singles event started. In response, the IOC announced that if Valieva were to medal, the medals and flowers ceremony would be delayed until the investigations are over, a process that could take months.

Again, these decisions led to more questions rather than anything resembling answers. It is still unclear why Valieva’s urine sample after the Russian national championships on Dec. 25 was not processed until Feb. 7, to which RUSADA has claimed that staff shortages due to the pandemic COVID-19 caused delay. If the sample had been processed in a timely manner, it is possible that Valieva could have missed the Olympics altogether. As for the trimetazidine, Valieva’s team claimed that the presence of the substance––which can increase endurance––is a case of contamination, as her grandfather has periodically taken the drug. Yet, The New York Times reported that the sample collected also included two other substances that can help the heart. Hypoxen and L-carnitine are not banned substances, but the combination of the three substances found are considered unusual in such a young athlete, and according to the chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency Travis Tygart, the trifecta can aim to increase endurance, reduce fatigue and better oxygen efficiency. 

Could this all just be a matter of coincidence and mistake? Russia’s history of doping begs to differ. Russia is currently banned from competing in the Olympics until Dec. 17, 2022; a two-year ban (although, originally a four-year ban until reduced by the CAS) was implemented after it was found guilty of a state-sponsored doping scheme during the 2014 Olympics. However, Russian athletes have still been allowed to compete as neutral athletes under the name of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, is another curious figure in the story, as she is known for pushing her athletes, mostly teenage girls, to the extremes for excellence, if only for short periods of time, as injuries, mental health issues and eating disorders have plagued and burned her athletes while they are still in their teens. 

Valieva’s age is one of the most important details in this case. Since Valieva is under 16, she is considered a “protected person” under WADA’s code and is therefore treated with different standards of evidence—the code offers no specific guidance for provisional suspensions concerning such. Furthermore, because of her age and status as “protected,” her team and entourage would also be investigated. Other reasons cited by the CAS included that she could suffer “irreparable harm” if she was suspended but then later found innocent, and that the timing of the results did not allow for a full legal process. 

Valieva’s age does inspire sympathy for her, but should it be enough to allow her to compete? It is clear that Valieva is not the sole mastermind behind her training, if she is in control of it at all. Between Russia’s doping legacy and Tutberidze’s extreme methods (which have included her athletes’ not drinking water during competition), it is not hard to believe that Valieva is a pawn in a greater scheme in obtaining athletic domination, a child perhaps exploited for her body and natural talents. Still, is it enough to exonerate her? It is important to protect minors at this stage of competition, but it also begs the question: if Valieva cannot be treated the same as senior athletes, should she be competing at this level at all, even with her God-given greatness? Again, more questions surface than any answers.

One answer that remains clear though, at least to WADA, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and many fellow athletes, is to the original question: should Valieva be allowed to compete at these Olympics? The answer is no. She tested positive for a banned substance. This is grounds for suspension or disqualification. And it seems the IOC agrees in their own way. By not allowing any ceremonies to take place on the possibility that Valieva earns a medal, it is evident that the IOC does not fully believe in her innocence. Yet, it is still frustrating that her participation, which will most likely result in a gold medal, will take away the ceremony experience for her fellow competitors. 

So, why is she being allowed to compete? The CAS is citing her age and the unfortunate timing of the results, but it is also important to acknowledge what she looks like. Valieva is a white, Russian, 15-year-old figure skater exemplified by her grace, elegance and now, innocence. But when Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for cannabis after qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics in the women’s 100 meters, she was suspended for a month and ended up missing the Games. Richardson was 21 years old and also favored to place in the top three of her event just like Valieva, and she admitted that she used the substance in a moment of grief over the passing of her mother. Why is Valieva allowed to compete, but Richardson was not? It is as Richardson states in a recent tweet calling out the double standard: “The only difference I see is I’m a [B]lack young lady.” The hypocrisy of punishing a high profile Black female athlete for breaking the rules, but not adhering a high profile white female athlete to those same rules is simply ridiculous and evident of the historic double standards concerning race permeating the highest bodies of sport. Furthermore, the mysterious timing of the testing results seems to not be held accountable. If the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency had simply had “labor shortages” and failed to process Richardson’s sample until after her event, would she still have been allowed to compete? I can probably guess that it would be a no.

Unsurprisingly, Valieva finished at the top after her short program on Tuesday with a score of 82.16 after stumbling during her performance. She is still expected to capture the gold on Thursday after the free skate, although whether she will actually receive the medal will be determined in a few months. It is no doubt that Valieva is of the superstar pedigree and watching her skate is a gift of athletic ability rarely seen. In the end, she is just a 15-year-old girl with the pressure of a nation, and the world, on her. Valieva has my sympathy, but not my support. She shouldn’t be competing. Yet as she likely earns the gold on Thursday, one question will not have to be asked. Will the 2022 Winter Olympics be remembered? Absolutely.

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