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The Irreparable Harm of Kamila Valieva’s Olympic Experience

The Russian figure skater came into these Games being lauded as one of the greatest of all time. But after a positive test for a banned substance and a free skate program that carried the weight of that result, the 15-year-old will be remembered very differently.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When you hear something is great, it’s natural to question that assertion. The more hype a trendy new food gets, or a TV show, or an athlete, the harder it is to meet those expectations. So when the NBC figure skating booth of Terry Gannon, Johnny Weir, and Tara Lipinski started talking up a 15-year-old Russian during last weekend’s team event, I scoffed. Figure skating superstars sprout up and fall away like leaves; surely calling her “the best skater [Weir’s] ever seen” was a bridge too far.

Then, over two nights, Kamila Valieva put on a show the likes of which had never been seen at the Olympics. She scored 90.18 points in the short program, 15.45 points higher than the second-place skater. (That gap was greater than the one between second and eighth places.) Four years ago, it was headline news that American Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel in Olympic competition; Valieva made the same jump look effortless. The next night, she outscored her nearest rival by 30 points and landed the first two quadruple jumps by any woman in Olympic history—it wasn’t too long ago that a male skater could win gold without a quad in his program.

As a mere athletic spectacle, it was breathtaking. Valieva skated with such precision, such grace, such artistry, that it was immediately clear even to my untrained eye that Lipinski and Weir had not oversold this star-in-waiting. She glided to one gold medal and seemed like a lock for a second in the women’s individual competition the following week.

Then, something even more astonishing happened. The medal ceremony for the team event was supposed to take place February 8, but it never happened. A day after, we found out why.

On Christmas Day 2021, the day after the Russian national championship, Valieva submitted a urine sample that would eventually produce a positive test result for trimetazidine—a drug usually prescribed for angina, and one that’s banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as a hormone and metabolic modulator. Under normal circumstances, Valieva would’ve tested positive long before she departed for China, but backups in the Swedish testing lab caused the process to take twice as long as normal. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency cleared Valieva on February 9, at which point WADA and the International Testing Agency (ITA) appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Skating Union (ISU) wanted Valieva gone, but on Monday, a panel of three CAS arbitrators denied the petition. Valieva would skate in the individual event despite her positive test.

The CAS ruling was as shocking as it was unpopular. Legendary Korean skater and 2010 gold medalist Yuna Kim posted a black square to Instagram with a message saying doping violators should not be allowed to compete. “This principle must be observed without exception,” she wrote. “All players’ efforts and dreams are equally precious.” Adam Rippon, the 2018 Olympian who’s back in Beijing as a coach for American skater Mariah Bell, called the decision “shameful” in an interview with NBC.

Weir and Lipinski sat down with NBC host Mike Tirico to discuss the CAS decision early Monday morning, and during that interview they swapped out their normal jocularity for a mood of astonished disappointment. Lipinski said, “Clean sport is the only thing that matters at an Olympic Games.” Weir followed up with jarring bluntness: “The Olympics has to be clean or it’s not fair. If you won’t play fair, you can’t play.”

The two pulled their punches only to acknowledge—correctly, and necessarily—that Valieva herself, as a 15-year-old, is a victim and not a villain in this story.

But CAS said Valieva could skate, and on Wednesday, skate she did. The Russian flubbed the first jump of her short program, and by the midpoint of her routine she had visibly started to cry. But she went on to skate circles around the competition and finished the evening in first place. At the end of it all, Weir, who days earlier had praised her so lavishly, delivered what will become one of the most memorable lines of commentary of these Games: “All I can feel like I can say is that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics.”

As the suspicion and disapproval peaked Thursday, Valieva struggled for the first time in her brief senior career. She hit the ice twice in her free skate, falling technically short in most of her jumps, and her 141.93 score left the door open for Russian teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, and Japanese skater Kaori Sakamoto, to pass her for spots on the podium. Valieva wept as she left the ice and even more so when she found out she would finish fourth. Olympic figure skating, unlike baseball, is very much a place for crying openly. But Valieva’s tears were especially gut-wrenching, driving home just what an ordeal the past week has been.

All the glowing adjectives from the team competition are crumpled up into the only one that fits now: awful. In their ruling, the CAS arbitrators listed “irreparable harm” as one of the principles they considered in letting Valieva compete. By this, they meant that if Valieva skated and was found guilty later after exhausting her appeals process, she could be disciplined then. If she were banned but later exonerated on appeal, there’d be no way to reinstate her.

But in truth, the irreparable harm has already been done. The world just watched a 15-year-old girl go from the toast of her sport to an object of pity and scorn almost overnight. We watched her skate the individual programs more or less pointlessly—the IOC pledged not to hold a medal ceremony for the women’s singles if Valieva had finished on the podium—likely already aware that this scandal will follow her the rest of her life. Or maybe that realization is yet to come, which might be worse.

Watching Weir and Lipinski try to grapple with what they were witnessing in Valieva’s individual programs, the thing that stood out—from the perspective of someone who usually covers baseball—was how shocked they were. Make no mistake, this is the biggest story of these Olympics; women’s figure skating is to the Winter Olympics what women’s gymnastics is to the Summer Games: its glamor event. Except in these Games, there’s no swimming or track and field to distract the spotlight operators. A doping scandal at this event is unprecedented.

But it’s not like this is the first Olympic doping scandal. Over the years, more than 100 athletes have had to return medals after a positive PED test. There are well-known cases—Lance Armstrong, Ben Johnson, Marion Jones—and obscure ones, in sports from athletics and weightlifting to shooting and (I swear to God) curling.

Figure skating is different. The common top-of-mind example for PEDs is anabolic steroids, and the common image for a drug cheat is someone who relies on raw speed and brute strength, and has giant beach muscles like Ivan Drago or a member of the 1999 Texas Rangers.

Skaters, though, are supposed to be entertainers—the closest thing you can get to a pure artist at the contemporary Olympics. Watching NBC’s coverage, one of the greatest strengths of the Weir-Lipinski duo is their ability to meet every competitor on their own terms. Only a handful will be world-class jumpers, maybe only one or two will have a shot at a medal. But Weir and Lipinski are just as happy to pump their fists at Frenchman Adam Siao Him Fa’s Star Wars routine or coo over Jason Brown’s lyrical skating form as they are to applaud Nathan Chen as he sends Elton John back to Mars. Skaters are not only competitors, but performers. Great ones are capable of technical precision and artistic subtleties that transcend the base physical attributes granted by PEDs.

It’s unclear to what extent trimetazidine, along with (reportedly) two other nonregulated substances, aided Valieva in her pursuit of Olympic gold. But whoever recommended that she take those substances thought the benefits outweighed the risk of a positive test—and because Valieva is only 15, her coaches and the people around her take an outsize share of the blame.

Every PED scandal comes with its own inscrutable calculus, not only about efficacy and risk, but moral compromise. And Valieva’s age confounds the normal gut-instinct response to an athlete accused of taking PEDs—fraud, cheater, pariah—because she’s considered a child everywhere except on competitive ice. Almost all the outrage over this situation reflects that she can’t be held primarily responsible. That leaves plenty of blame to dump onto the adults in the room, or even her country’s sporting apparatus writ large.

Valieva’s positive test comes against a historical backdrop of systemic Russian doping programs. For starters, she’s not even competing under the Russian flag, but rather under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee. Russia, as a country, is serving a ban on international sporting competition for doping infractions dating back to the early 2010s. RUSADA, the testing agency that cleared Valieva on February 9, is currently under suspension from WADA as part of the same scandal. Not that any of this makes much of a difference—Russian athletes still compete as a team, and President Vladimir Putin still attends the games to cheer them on.

Then there’s the country’s recent history in figure skating. In this sport, the competition is even more exacting, and the competitive environment less forgiving, than in others. And Russian women—girls, really—have dominated international competition for almost a decade now, mostly under the tutelage of legendary coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Tutberidze molds future world and Olympic champions from a very young age. She coached Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won gold in the Olympic team event as well as the European championship in 2014 at age 15. She coached Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, 15 and 18, respectively, at the time, to a 1-2 finish in Pyeongchang. And all three Russian skaters in Beijing are Tutberidze’s pupils, including the 17-year-old Shcherbakova, who led a Russian podium sweep at the last World Championships before Valieva was old enough to enter senior competition.

But none of Tutberidze’s previous Olympic champion protégés were fit to defend their medals at the next Olympics. Neither could 2014 gold medalist Adelina Sotnikova, who was not coached by Tutberidze. Every female Russian skating prodigy over the past decade has had a similar career path: rapid ascent to world dominance, a peak of only two or three seasons, and then injuries and/or burnout take their toll. Then comes the next crop of young stars to replace them.

Valieva is a product of both of these systems—and the people behind them left her out on Olympic ice to absorb the scorn and frustration they themselves ought to suffer. Maybe they will, someday. Travis Tygart, the USADA CEO who made his reputation in the Lance Armstrong case, told CNN that Valieva’s coaches and doctors, and Russian sports officials, could suffer criminal penalties under a 2020 U.S. law called the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act (RADA). Which sounds great in theory. But while the thin threat of criminal charges hangs around, a fist shaken from 5,000 miles away, Valieva remains the face of the scandal—both now and going forward.

For all the reasons Valieva’s story is unique, however, one visceral gut-punch element of this scandal is all too familiar. In NBC’s initial reaction to the CAS decision, it was Tirico who gave voice to the thing all truly upsetting PED cases have in common.

“You both were effusive in your praise of her skating in the team event,” Tirico said to Weir and Lipinski. “You marveled to the point that [Valieva] may be as good a skater as you’ve ever seen. Does that add to any of the attention and the feelings here? Because what you all saw was something you’ve rarely seen from a figure skater in your career?”

That’s a big part of why this feels so awful. Valieva is special. The people most knowledgeable about and invested in figure skating believed that, and even dilettantes who tune in only for the Olympics could see it too. If some third-string NFL linebacker has boldenone in his pee, nobody cares. Not so when the athlete in question is exceptional, or inspiring, or somehow meaningful in a way that transcends the bubble of the sport.

That’s why Jones’s case turned into a media circus, why Armstrong’s caused an open wound in American civic religion, why baseball’s steroid era is still a topic of ferocious contention decades after the events being discussed.

Just 10 days ago, Valieva represented a new frontier in human achievement, not only as an athlete but an artist in a medium meant to transport viewers through time and space, built on a foundation of romance and wonder. Now, her sport is right down in the mud with the rest—the figure of fantasy now a conduit for discussion about human failings.

Of course that violation inspires feelings of anger, betrayal, confusion; resentment that the show went on, even though most of the fans, competitors, and even officials didn’t want it to. It’s awful, it’s farcical, but there’s nothing more to be done. Maybe Weir was right—there’s little to say now other than, “It happened.”