When Russian figure skating phenom Kamila Valieva took to the ice Tuesday to compete in the women's short program, she did what we've seen her do all year. In just under three minutes, she delivered a mesmerizing performance—aside from a shaky landing on her triple axel, the skill that has troubled her of late—in a remarkable display of talent and artistry that put her safely in the lead going into Thursday's free skate.
Sadly, the performance was nothing to celebrate. Instead of being a breakout competition for figure skating's brightest star, Valieva's appearance in Beijing has turned into a travesty thanks to the adults who are charged with her care and the institutions that have failed once again to prevent systemic doping.
As figure skating's biggest scandal since the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 plays out, it exposes everything that's wrong with the sport today: the potential for child endangerment, the pressure put on young athletes' bodies and minds and the IOC's inadequacy in the face of the Russian sporting system—all with Valieva, a 15-year-old girl, sadly caught in the center.
The scandal made Valieva's dominant performance all the more remarkable for her sheer grit in the face of a media frenzy. Just days after a video circulated of her crying during a training session and hours after she fell twice on her triple axel in a practice session, she delivered a confident, albeit emotional, performance.
With 82.16 points heading into the free skate, Valieva is just shy of two points ahead of compatriot and 2021 world champion Anna Shcherbakova, who hit for an 80.20, and 2.32 ahead of Japan's Kaori Sakamoto, who earned a career-high 79.84. Alexandra Trusova, also competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, fell on her triple axel and finished fourth.
While in another context Valieva's performance—on top of her debut, during the team event, of the quad, the first female figure skater to do so at the Olympics—would be considered a revolutionary moment for women's figure skating, here it belies something more sinister as we learn more and more about the dark underbelly of Russian figure skating.
Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance that is used to treat heart conditions but could be used to help improve an athletes' endurance, from a sample taken on December 25 at the Russian national championships.
The positive test emerged last Tuesday, one day after the team competition concluded. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA)—which said the testing delay was due to COVID-19 infections among laboratory staff—responded by provisionally banning Valieva and then lifted the ban upon appeal. It's this decision that the International Testing Agency (ITA) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) contested in a hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in an attempt to prevent Valieva from competing.
But the court ruled in Valieva's favor, deciding Monday that since Valieva is a "protected person" (according to WADA, someone under age 16), rules surrounding provisional suspensions don't apply to her and that keeping her from competing "would cause her irreparable harm."
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), knowing that Valieva could still be sanctioned "after due process has been followed," responded by canceling the team medal ceremony and, if Valieva medals, the individual ceremony.
Which brings us to the short program, where 30 athletes competed in a tainted event. While the AP reports that the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) claimed a doping test taken during the Olympics was negative, and attorneys for Valieva say that the positive test was a result of contamination from her grandfather's medicine, Valieva's participation sends the message that, as American figure skater Bradie Tennell put it in a tweet, "the rules we live and train by, are nothing but disposable by those in charge."
Essentially, if you are a clean athlete, there is no guarantee that you will compete against clean athletes, and there's nothing anyone in power will do about it.
The ruling is also an implicit endorsement of the situation under which Valieva trains and skates, something that has ominous implications for the sport's future. As Valieva and her compatriots propel the sport to new levels by completing quads—they are the only competitors in Beijing to do so—questions have emerged about what it's taken for them to get there.
All three of the Russian skaters competing at these Olympics train under Eteri Tutberidze, who has trained a series of figure skating phenoms just like Valieva, including the skaters who took gold and silver at the last Olympics, Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva. Young, slim skaters—those best positioned to complete elusive quad jumps—have thrived competitively under Tutberidze, but only for spurts. After that, they tend to retire because of injuries and in one confirmed case because of an eating disorder.
Abusive coaching practices exist at every level across every sport—figure skating is no exception—and Tutberidze's methods certainly need further scrutiny. But here, we have a clear example of a girl—someone who cannot consent to being drugged, but, conversely, can still consent to competing on the world's stage—who is being harmed, and as of now, nothing is being done. Contrary to CAS' claim that keeping Valieva from competing would cause her harm, as Bruce Arthur so aptly put it in the Toronto Star, "In protecting her based on her age, the panel allowed Russia to continue to exploit her based on her age."
The panel also continued to allow Russia to make a laughingstock of the ITA, WADA and the IOC. Six years after Russia's state-sponsored doping became public knowledge, WADA still does not have control over the problem, and RUSADA still maintains independence.
RUSADA was declared "non-compliant" in December 2020 after an investigation showed "extensive manipulation and deletion of some data" from Moscow's anti-doping lab. The non-compliance status, decided in another hearing with CAS, lasts through 2022 and bans Russian athletes from competing under their flag. Still, RUSADA continues to operate independently and without "any special monitoring or supervision," according to WADA, allowing WADA to punt blame for the case's mismanagement to RUSADA.
Since Valieva's sample was taken before the Olympics, the ITA and the IOC aren't in charge of managing the case, and WADA blames RUSADA for not fast-tracking the sample. Still, RUSADA will be responsible for investigating Valieva's support personnel. Not to worry, though, because WADA will also "look into it."
The situation is admittedly opaque and complex. But if we've learned anything from it, it's that the system in charge of keeping drugs out of sport and protecting young athletes is not working. Valieva and the other skaters showed up and did everything that was asked of them, with beautiful results. It's a shame the people in charge didn't do the same.