The decision to allow the Russian prodigy Kamila Valieva to take part in the women’s figure skating competition less than two months after testing positive for a banned heart medication has cast a shadow over the glamour event of the Winter Olympics that will persist for years to come, further tainting the reputation of a Beijing Games already beset by controversy.
Armed with a quiver of point-gobbling quadruple jumps, the 15-year-old Valieva set the world record for combined total score in her first outing as a senior in October and has improved from there, skating with a deeper maturity and sophistication in each competition through to the team event last week in Beijing, where she became the first woman to land a four-revolution jump on Olympic ice. But the entirety of her sensational debut campaign was thrown into question on Friday after it was revealed she tested positive for a prohibited substance known to increase endurance and stamina.
The ruling handed down on Monday by the court of arbitration for sport (Cas), allowing Valieva to compete while appealing against the positive result, represents a mockery of the Olympic movement. The likelihood that Valieva will fly home with not one but two gold medals despite testing positive for an illegal substance is a devastating optical blow for a sport that, practically, has only just emerged from the judging scandal at the 2002 Olympics that left its integrity in tatters.
At times such as these – and Monday will surely go down as one of figure skating’s darkest days – the instinct to assign blame kicks in. But the widespread anger toward the Cas decision is misguided. The panel of three judges were not charged with examining whether or not Valieva doped, rather the procedural matter of whether the Russian teenager should be suspended until it is determined whether she did.
The search for culpability that follows in the coming months along with the investigation into the merits of the case – one that could still end with Valieva stripped of her medals – will extend to the skater’s entourage and whether anyone in it encouraged the use of a banned substance.
Top of that list is Eteri Tutberidze, the enigmatic, polarising coach whose methods have forged skaters that have dominated the international scene for eight years while drawing criticism for their short, injury-prone careers. On Saturday she admitted the situation was “very controversial and difficult” but added: “I want to say that I am absolutely sure that Kamila is innocent and clean.”
Another is Filipp Shvetsky, the doctor at rinkside for Valieva’s senior international debut in October who was reportedly banned from working with Russia’s rowing team following a 2007 doping inquest. Shvetsky claims he was made a scapegoat. Other members of her coaching team on the ground in Beijing are Sergei Dudakov and Daniil Gleikhengauz, both of whom hail from the Sambo-70 club in Moscow where Tutberidze is head coach. None of Valieva’s support personnel have been formally accused of any wrongdoing.
The maelstrom has already generated backlash in Russia, where the hashtag #позорТутберидзе, or #shameonTutberidze was trending on Twitter as news of Valieva’s positive drug test spread on Friday. Since then Valieva, who has appeared distraught in training sessions in the days since the news broke, has been seized on as a reminder of how vulnerable young athletes remain.
Adam Rippon – the 2018 Olympic bronze medallist and coach of the American skater Mariah Bell, who will compete against Valieva this week – said: “The adults around her have completely failed her. They’ve put her in this awful situation and should be punished.”
As far as the stain on the women’s competition, which begins on Tuesday with the short programme and concludes with Thursday’s free skate, the blame falls on the collective failure of the alphabet soup of organisations in the Olympic orbit – none more than the International Olympic Committee – to hold the line on Russia’s serial malfeasance over the years. What has passed for discipline has plainly failed to create an adequate deterrent for the glory of gold over the welfare of athletes.
When a judging scandal rocked the pairs figure skating competition at the 2002 Olympics, ultimately leading to a complete overhaul of the scoring system, the Russian team who benefited were awarded duplicate golds rather than downgraded to silver and no extensive investigation was ever conducted. The years-long doping program that included the sabotaging of drug tests during the 2014 Sochi Olympics was answered with a banning of the Russian flag rather than the state behind it, with more than 300 athletes from Russia invited to compete at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games under the Russian Olympic Committee designation.
Now a young athlete is cleared to compete after testing positive for a banned substance, handing another victory to Russia’s state-sponsored doping system if Valieva’s positive test is confirmed.
The obvious way forward is to raise the age minimum, which feels like a foregone conclusion if it is found that bad actors were able to exploit the idea of a “protected person” as a loophole to circumvent the rules. But that won’t save this year’s competition, the one time every four years when the general public leans forward and pays attention.
The IOC responded with surprising force on Monday evening, saying there would be no medal ceremony for last week’s team competition and no medal ceremony for the women’s event this week if Valieva finishes on the podium, stating it would not be appropriate to include an athlete with a positive A-sample but whose violation of anti-doping rules has not been established. It also requested the ISU allow the 25th-place finisher in the short programme on Tuesday, who otherwise would have missed the cut, to take part in the free skate on Thursday.
Yet all of it feels too little too late. After years of acquiescence and appeasement, the chickens have come home to roost under the brightest lights. And clean sport is left holding the bag once again.