Former Olympic stars are up in arms over the controversial ruling allowing Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva to continue to compete in the Beijing Olympics—but prevent her or any other athletes from receiving medals if Valieva places in the top three. The 15-year-old Valieva had been the gold medal favorite in the women’s event, which begins Tuesday Feb. 15, after she successfully appealed her suspension for testing positive for a banned substance.
“Dirty cheaters, and we are accommodating them,” says Adam Rippon, who helped the U.S. win a team figure skating bronze at the 2018 Games. “I don’t know how the Olympics recovers from this.”
Valieva tested positive for a heart medication, trimetazidine, normally prescribed to patients with angina to improve blood flow. Athletes have been known to use the drug to help increase circulation and endurance, which allows them to train longer, and the drug is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list. Valieva’s positive sample came from Dec. 25, at the Russian national championships, which is before Olympic doping regulations took effect on Jan. 27. In Beijing, Russian athletes are competing as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), and not under their country’s flag, because the country is serving a multi-year ban for a state sponsored doping system that was exposed following the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
“They shouldn’t be here at the Olympic Games,” Rippon says of the Russian team’s repeated doping violations. “They’re clowns.”
Because Valieva is a minor, anti-doping authorities consider her a “protected person,” meaning that punishments are generally lighter and an investigation into the violation will be focused more on the adults surrounding her on the assumption that she may not have been aware of the banned substance. “What this says is that the team around her are child abusers,” says Rippon, who now coaches American skater Mariah Bell. “The only thing they care about is performance, and not the health and well being of their athletes. They are a factory that pumps out children who can compete, up to a certain point. It doesn’t feel like the coaches involved in the ladies’ program are coaches at all, but dog trainers; they’re running a circus.”
The repeated doping violations from Russian athletes have been a plague on the Olympic movement and its professed to commitment to clean competition and a level playing field. “I feel sick to my stomach. What I’m feeling is my whole dedication to my sport, to my community and to my country — I’m questioning it all,” says retired Canadian skater Scott Moir, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in ice dance. “I’m questioning why I walked into schools for the past 12 years of my life and told kids what pride I took in being an Olympian and what that means, and what power sports has in bringing the world together, for fair play and the Olympic morals that we all believe in.”
Like Rippon, Moir has sympathy for the circumstances surrounding Valieva but doesn’t believe that she should be excused without consequence. “I do feel for the 15-year-old,” he says, “but at the end of the day if she did cheat, it’s very simple to me—she shouldn’t be competing. I do put the blame for that on people around her, and not so much on her. But this is a big hit to the Olympic movement.”
Moir is concerned that the ruling will test the faith and trust that young athletes, and the public, have in the Olympics being the purest form of healthy competition. If a doped athlete is allowed to compete, he says, “I don’t understand why people would want to turn on the TV to watch. The only optimistic thing that I can come up with is that this sparks change.”
Rippon agrees, and points out the stark contrast with how RUSADA handled Valieva’s violation, by initially suspending her from competing in Beijing but then lifting that suspension, to the way the US Anti-Doping Agency managed the case of star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson before the Tokyo Olympics last summer. Richardson tested positive for marijuana just before the Games began, and was banned from competing. “It really shows how Americans deal with it, and how and how RUSADA deals with it — they don’t,” he says. “They pretend it doesn’t happen, and pretend that people are picking on them.” Richardson herself reacted to the news that Valieva will continue to compete, raising yet another issue affecting social tensions, by noting “the only difference I see is I’m a black young lady. It’s all in the skin.”
Critics have said that the doping issue, particularly with the seemingly constant violations among Russian athletes, can be traced to weak sanctions for breaking the rules. “A complete and total ban from all international competition is the only thing that works,” says Rippon. “It’s heartbreaking to think about the athletes who have spent their lives training, but the Olympics took a big blow today and I don’t know how it recovers from this. A lot of people have lost faith in the Olympics and in clean sport.”
Further investigation will include testing Valieva’s so-called B sample, a second sample athletes routinely provide at the same time as their primary sample that serves as a back up for confirmatory testing. Rippon explained the testing procedure, describing the process of providing a urine sample into a glass bottle marked A beyond a designated line, and then pouring off the excess urine into an identical bottle marked B until the volume in the A bottle reaches the specified line. One bottle cap is red, the other blue, and the athlete twists each cap closed until they lock and cannot be opened except by lab personnel to prevent tampering. If Valieva’s A sample is positive, then her B sample should also be positive, since it’s the same urine sample.
In order to be allowed to take a banned substance to treat a health condition, athletes have to file a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) and have the medication approved. So far, RUSADA has made no mention of a TUE filed by Valieva, and the fact that the agency initially issued a suspension strongly suggests that her use of the drug was a doping violation. Plus, argues Rippon, “If you are a 15 year old with angina, you probably should be at home resting and not trying to compete at the Olympic Games.”
Ultimately, the deepest scars will likely be left on Valieva, who, in the middle of training and preparing for her first Olympics, an already mentally and physically demanding experience, is now navigating the unspeakable pressure of being the target of whispered conversations and having her rare talent on the ice, the very thing that has defined her young life to this point, called into question. One can only imagine how that will manifest in not only her performance in Beijing, but in her life for years to come.
Both Rippon and Moir now coach skaters Valieva’s age. They hope to use this unfortunate spectacle as a teaching tool, if nothing else positive comes out of it. “We will talk about how yes, life isn’t fair all the time, but the most important thing is to keep your integrity, and play the game by the rules, and for what you believe in,” says Moir.
It’s a hard lesson to learn, but essential to the effort to keep the Olympics, and all sport, clean.
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