The Beijing Winter Games descended into acrimony and farce on Monday after the 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva was cleared to compete again despite a positive doping test hanging over her head.
In a highly anticipated ruling, the court of arbitration for sport said there were “exceptional circumstances” surrounding Valieva’s case, and that banning her while it was ongoing “would cause her irreparable harm”.
It means Valieva, who last week became the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics when she inspired the Russian Olympic Committee to victory in the team event, will now go for a second gold medal in the women’s single skating competition starting on Tuesday and finishing on Thursday.
But Cas’s verdict was immediately condemned by several former athletes, with the 2018 Olympic team skating gold medallist Meagan Duhamel among the most vocal. “How is anyone going to take the women’s event seriously now?” she said. “We were just told illegal drugs and abuse are OK. If that is what this sport is about now, I want nothing to do with it. February 14 2022. The day the Olympic spirit died.”
The decision was also criticised by the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, whose skaters finished in silver behind the Russians in the team event. Its chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, described it as “another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia”. She said: “Athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, today that right is being denied.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee also said it was “extremely disappointed” with the decision. “The COC is fully committed to clean sport and we firmly believe that no one involved in doping or other corrupt practices has a place in the Olympic movement,” its president, Tricia Smith, said.
Valieva, who practised on Monday, has not commented on the decision. However her choreographer Alexey Zheleznyakov said he was delighted with the news. “The whole country does not sleep for a week! The whole world prays for a week,” he wrote on Instagram. “Everyone is happy today. Come on, our girl, fly, angel, fly!”
Cas’s decision caps a remarkable week at these Winter Olympics which began last Monday when Valieva inspired the Russian Olympic Committee to victory in the team event. A day later, however, her world was turned upside down when the World Anti-Doping Agency-approved Stockholm laboratory reported that a urine sample taken from Valieva on Christmas Day contained the banned angina drug trimetazidine.
That news led to the Russian Anti-Doping Agency provisionally suspending her, before reversing its decision a day later. That led the International Olympic Committee, Wada and the International Skating Union to take Valieva to Cas – which finally ruled against them on Monday afternoon.
However, because Cas’s decision was limited to the sole question of whether Valieva should be allowed to compete again in Beijing – and not whether her urine sample contained a banned drug – there remains the strong possibility that she could still be banned in the coming months and also lose any medals she wins at these Games.
The IOC has now confirmed it will not hold victory ceremonies for the team or individual figure skating events – a controversial decision that many here in Beijing believe unfairly punishes athletes from other teams.
“In the interest of fairness, it would not be appropriate to hold the medal ceremony for the figure skating team event as it would include an athlete who on the one hand has a positive A-sample but whose violation of the anti-doping rules has not yet been established on the other hand,” it said.
“Should Ms Valieva finish amongst the top three competitors in the women’s single skating competition, no flower ceremony and no medal ceremony will take place during the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.”
In a statement explaining its decision, Cas said the World Anti-Doping Code was unclear when it came to sanctions relating to suspended “protected persons” under 16 years of age. It also stressed that a 44-day delay in reporting Valieva’s positive test for TMZ, because of Covid issues in the Stockholm testing laboratory, had affected her ability to mount a defence.
“The panel considered that preventing the athlete from competing at the Olympic Games would cause her irreparable harm in these circumstances,” Matthieu Reeb, secretary general for Cas, told the world’s press.
Reeb also stressed the panel was concerned that if a permanent suspension had been imposed on the athlete and she was later cleared or given a very low sanction it would have caused “serious damage”.
Cas added: “The panel considered fundamental principles of fairness, proportionality, irreparable harm and the relative balance of interests as between the applicants and the athlete, who did not test positive during the Olympic Games in Beijing and is still subject to a disciplinary procedure.”
But in a statement, Wada suggested Cas had not correctly interpreted Wada’s Code as it applies to athletes under 16. “Wada is disappointed by today’s ruling,” it said.
“While Wada has not received the reasoned award, it appears that the Cas panel decided not to apply the terms of the code, which does not allow for specific exceptions to be made in relation to mandatory provisional suspensions for ‘protected persons’, including minors.”