beijing olympics

Why Letting Kamila Valieva Compete Is a Travesty

Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Last week, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who had been favored to win gold in Beijing, became the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics. But soon after, news broke that before the Games, she had tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned medication used to increase blood flow to the heart. This cast a long shadow over her feat. “Does it really feel impressive anymore?” said Adam Rippon, a figure skater who won bronze as part of Team USA in 2018. “Yeah, no, I don’t think so.”

In a move that surprised many observers, the International Olympic Committee chose not to ban Valieva from competing in Beijing. Instead, the Court of Arbitration for Sport gave her the go-ahead to skate, arguing that she is a “protected person” because of her young age and, notably, prioritizing her personal welfare: “The panel considered that preventing the athlete to compete at the Olympic Games would cause her irreparable harm in the circumstances,” said Matthieu Reeb, the CAS director general.

However, the organization decided to delay any medal ceremonies involving Valieva indefinitely until a full investigation can be conducted. There was no ceremony for the team figure-skating event, which wrapped up last week with Russia in first. Valieva is leading the women’s individual short program after another impressive routine Tuesday, and if she finishes in the top three — which looks likely — there will be no medal ceremony for that event either.

Rippon thinks the IOC’s rationale for letting Valieva compete is ridiculous. “I can’t imagine that there’s going to be any less harm if she’s in the top three, there’s no medal ceremony, and eventually, she’ll probably have that medal stripped from her anyway, which is probably even more harmful,” he said over Zoom from his quarters in Beijing, where he’s coaching American skater Mariah Bell. “If you’re so concerned about her mental well-being, get her to a counselor, get her to a psychologist now, and get her out of this complete circus.”

Mirai Nagasu, an American figure skater who stood on the podium alongside Rippon in the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, said she has empathy for Valieva. “It’s really the adults who are guiding her that should be punished,” she told me over the phone. “But I have to stand with other skaters who want to compete on clean grounds.”

Their opinions appear to be widely shared in the figure-skating world with commentators and ex-skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir voicing their indignation on the NBC broadcast.

Nagasu compared the situation to that of American figure skater Jessica Calalang, who was suspended from skating for months after testing positive for a banned substance called 4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid. “She is not a minor, so they put her career on hold indefinitely,” Nagasu said. It turned out that Calalang tested positive only because she used beauty products that contained “chlorphenesin, a non-prohibited cosmetic preservative found in shampoos and lotions” that “can also metabolize into 4-CPA,” per the Associated Press.

Nagasu also invoked the case of Sha’Carri Richardson, the highly touted American runner who was disqualified from the 2020 Tokyo Games after she tested positive for cannabis — not known to be a performance enhancer — which she had used after learning her mother passed away. “The fact that there are discrepancies between each sport shows that our governing system needs to change,” Nagasu said.

“Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines?” Richardson wrote on Twitter. “My mother died and I can’t run and was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady.”

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Valieva tested positive for two other heart medications that aren’t banned substances but are odd for a teenager to be taking. “It’s a trifecta of substances — two of which are allowed and one that is not allowed,” Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told the Times. The combination seems “to be aimed at increasing endurance, reducing fatigue, and promoting greater efficiency in using oxygen,” he said.

Rippon stressed that gaming the system isn’t commonplace. “The Russians are under the impression that everybody’s doping and that they’re just trying to play by the rules, and that whenever they get caught, it’s the rest of the world picking on them,” he said. “Really, that’s not the case.”

Nagasu and Rippon agreed that the IOC’s decision to forgo medal ceremonies, leaving the top four athletes in the dark as to what they actually won, is unfair to everyone else competing against her. Delaying the medal ceremony, Rippon said, “is just as unfair as letting her compete.”

“You just don’t know what type of emotion you’ll be hit with when you’re in that medal ceremony and standing on the podium,” Nagasu said. “For me personally, it felt like I was fulfilling a life journey. Our American skaters don’t know if they’ve claimed the silver or maybe even the gold, and they’re maybe getting their medal shipped to them. Not having that moment with your team will be hard for all of them.”

Valieva is competing for the Russian Olympic Committee in lieu of Russia after the country was banned from participating in the Olympics because of a state-sponsored doping program. “The Russians have had their flag taken away from them. They’ve had their anthem taken away from them. And the only thing that they suffer as a consequence are their ugly sweatsuits that they have to wear instead of a team uniform,” Rippon said.

“The probations and sanctions that they’re under are just a slap on the wrist,” he continued. “Maybe they should change their anthem to ‘Bad Boys’ because it’s just a joke. They’ve made it a complete joke again.”

Why Letting Kamila Valieva Compete Is a Travesty