Beijing’s Biggest Scandal: Kamila Valieva’s Doping Case

On February 8, just a day after the conclusion of the 2022 Beijing Olympics Figure Skating Team Event, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva received a positive test result for Trimetazidine, a drug that improves cardiac function, and also a substance that appears on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances.

In compliance with testing procedures, Valieva provided a urine sample to officials on December 25, 2021. At the time, she was competing at the Russian National Figure Skating Championships, an event that was widely described as the most difficult competition of the season for female single skaters. Due to the abundance of talent and depth of the competitive field, reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova was forced to settle for third with a score of 239.56, and world silver medalist Elizaveta Tuktamysheva ended in seventh with a score of 224.40. Kamila Valieva clinched first by an astonishing 34.83 points, finishing with a score of  283.48, securing her first national title and an Olympic berth. 

Valieva entered the Beijing Olympics as the favorite for the gold medal in the women’s event, along with her teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, who are also favored to win medals in the same event. Valieva received the honor of being the sole women’s single skater to represent Russia in the team event, where she won both the short program and the free skate, helping her teammates win their second team gold medal.

But Valieva didn’t just win a medal at the event–she became the first female skater to land two quadruple jumps at the Olympics.

Alexandra Trusova, who pioneered the “quad revolution” in women’s figure skating, along with Anna Shcherbakova, missed the opportunity to write that specific piece of history due to their absence in the event.

The order of events in the Olympics is household knowledge: after the conclusion of the event, medals are awarded to the athletes. But for the 2022 Team Event, this was not the case. Valieva’s positive test result postponed the medal ceremony indefinitely, while simultaneously sparking an investigation into the skater and her coaching staff, as well as a debate on whether or not she should be allowed to compete in her event starting on February 15. The result came after an abnormal six-week delay, one which sparked a series of questions about the integrity of the testing from Russian Olympic Committee officials.

While ROC head Stanislav Pozdnyakov tried to arouse suspicion about the process, RUSADA stated that “the delay in analysis and reported by the laboratory was caused by another wave of COVID-19 (cases), an increase in illness among laboratory staff and quarantine rules.” 

Anton Pohanka, the Director of Stockholm’s Doping Control Laboratory–the laboratory that delivered Valieva’s test result–declined to comment on the case.

Following the news, RUSADA provisionally suspended Valieva, but lifted that suspension on February 9, only a day after it was imposed. The decision sparked outrage from skaters and fans around the world and set the IOC on course to appeal the decision to lift the suspension. The debate was complicated by Valieva’s age–a mere 15 years old–which renders her a “protected person” by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Her status could result in her receiving a lesser punishment, as opposed to an athlete aged 16 years or older, who would have been eligible for the maximum two-year suspension.

The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) deliberated Valieva’s case for six hours and 20 minutes starting on the night of February 12 and ending on February 13 at 2:10 a.m. On February 14, she was cleared to compete in her event, but with an unusual caveat: Olympic officials decided that they would withhold medals in any event in which Valieva placed in the top three, at least until her case is resolved, which may take weeks–or even months. The IOC also stated that the medal ceremony for the team event would not be held during the Olympic Games. Additionally, the IOC asked the ISU to allow a 25th skater, as opposed to the traditional 24 to advance to the women’s free skate, assuming Valieva advances, a request which they granted.

The announcements were followed by an outpouring of anger and disappointment from skaters across the globe. Adam Rippon, a retired U.S. men’s single skater and 2018 bronze medalist in the team event, took to Twitter to express his animosity.

“I am so angry. The ladies’ event tomorrow is a complete joke. It’s not a real competition and it most likely won’t even have a medal ceremony. So many Olympic experiences [were] stolen from clean athletes who got here without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. What a shame,” he said.

Russian and Olympic officials, in defense of Valieva, argued that she could have ingested Trimetazidine by accident. In Valieva’s defense of herself, she suggested that the positive result stemmed from a case of contamination with a product her grandfather was taking. However, according to documents and an official who took part in the CAS’s hearing, the Stockholm laboratory that carried out Valieva’s test found evidence of two other heart medications not appearing on the WADA’s list of banned substances: Hypoxen and L-Carnitine. The presence of the additional substances appears to make it significantly less likely that Valieva’s ingestion of Trimetazidine was a mistake.

Some sources, such as Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, argue that the Valieva story is an “indictment of the anti-doping system, not her.” Jenkins states that the criminalization of a 15-year-old athlete is the true moral disaster of this scandal and that the WADA–who should have produced a test result in 10 days, instead of six weeks–was truly at fault.

Despite the ongoing developments and growing controversy, the women’s short program proceeded on Tuesday, February 15 as planned. Valieva, who skated 26th and was in the final group of competitors, stumbled on her opening jump–a triple axel–but still managed to place first with 82.16 points. She held a small cushion of 1.96 points over teammate Shcherbakova, second, and 2.32 points over Kaori Sakamoto, the reigning Japanese National Champion. Jenni Saarinen, the reigning Finnish national champion, placed 25th with a score of 56.97. Because of the ISU’s modification to the parameters of qualification for the free skate, she was eligible to compete in the final women’s event on Thursday, February 17.

The United States retired figure skaters and sports commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, once very vocally supportive of Valieva, delivered searing criticism from the very beginning of NBC’s live broadcast of the women’s short program.

“It’s putting a permanent scar on our sport,” Lipinski said. Weir concurred, adding, “[I feel] so uncomfortable as a skater and as a skating fan even having to commentate [on] her performance simply because she should not be able to compete in this competition.”

Such an instance is not unfamiliar to Russia. A “widespread, state-sponsored doping scheme” at the 2014 Sochi Games involved several athletes, resulting in their country, flag, and anthem being banned from the subsequent Olympic Games in Pyeongchang. 168 athletes were still permitted to compete under the neutral title “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” Despite the ban, athletes continued to fail doping tests at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.

Doping is not the only reason Russia is taking up many newspapers’ recent headlines. Rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine have been escalating for several weeks, with recent reports stating that Russian units and missiles were advancing towards the Ukrainian border. While Russia claimed to have pulled back some of their troops, President Joe Biden said on Tuesday that the claim remained unverified and that an invasion was still very much possible.

The conflict has been festering since July 2014 but was at a stalemate until Russia began mobilizing troops in October of 2021. Many leaders and diplomats, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have tried to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discourage an invasion.

While the Olympics have historically been hailed as a uniting force for the nations of the world, 2022 seems to be doing just the opposite, with Valieva’s scandal triggering an uproar in the sports world and the Russo-Ukrainian conflict continuing to build in the background. But, amid all the controversies and the troubles of the world, the show goes on.

NBC streamed the women’s free skate live at 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time on Thursday, February 17. Valieva skated last and made multiple errors, stepping out of and falling on several jumps. She finished in fourth with 224.09 points. Anna Shcherbakova claimed the gold with 255.95 points, and Alexandra Trusova took silver with 251.73. Kaori Sakamoto of Japan won bronze with a score of 233.13, her personal best.