Skater Did Test Positive for Banned Drug, Making Mockery of IOC Decision to Let Russians Compete

Lintao Zhang
Lintao Zhang

The young Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva did indeed test positive for a banned heart drug, it was confirmed Friday.

But—in news that prompted a wave of sympathy for the 15-year-old skating sensation—it emerged that her doping sample sat in a Swedish laboratory for six weeks and was only finally analyzed the day after she led Russia to victory in the team event at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

That revelation makes a mockery of IOC claims to be tackling doping properly, and calls into question the decision to let Russian athletes compete at the Olympics despite proven state-sponsored doping. And it led to a warning from the head of the U.S. anti-doping agency that U.S. prosecutors might directly target Russian individuals involved in the skater’s case if they are not held to account.

According to a detailed statement this morning from the International Testing Agency (ITA), Valieva was subject to a doping control on Dec. 25 during the Russian figure skating championships in St Petersburg.

A fortnight later she won gold on her European Championships debut in Estonia, earning herself a spot on the Russian Olympic team. The Dec. 25 sample, which had been sent to an internationally accredited laboratory in Stockholm, had still not been tested.

On Monday, Valieva became the first woman to land quad jumps in Olympic competition as she led the Russians to team gold in the opening event in Beijing with a performance that marked her out as the sport's brightest new star.

Next day, however, as the Russians prepared to collect their gold medals, news finally reached Beijing she had tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, which is usually used to treat angina but can be used to improve blood flow and boost endurance.

According to the timeline given by the ITA, Talieva was provisionally suspended by the Russian anti-doping agency that same day. The suspension was lifted on appeal on Wednesday by a Russian disciplinary panel, allowing her to resume training in Beijing yesterday.

Now that decision is itself being challenged by the International Olympic Committee, which is appealing at the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport for her to be barred from next week’s individual figure skating competition. The Russians could have their team medal stripped from them and it handed to their American rivals—although they insist it was won fairly.

Confirmation of the failed drugs test comes as a huge blow for the IOC, which was much criticized for allowing Russian athletes to compete at last year’s Tokyo Summer Games and in Beijing despite Russia itself being banned from international events because of systematic doping.

Under a messy compromise, the athletes compete under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee rather than Russia itself—although they still consider themselves a team and Russian President Vladimir Putin proudly joined the guests of honor at the Beijing opening ceremony.

Complicating matters is the fact that at 15, Valieva is considered a “protected person” under world anti-doping rules, meaning that she cannot be held personally liable for substances found in her system and should not even be publicly identified as a doping suspect.

If the sample had been tested promptly, Valieva, given her age, would likely have faced a simple reprimand—although whoever gave her the substance would face a lifetime ban from the sport. She might even have been allowed to carry on competing and her failed drugs test would likely have remained secret.

As it is she faces losing both her team gold—which would go to the second-placed American team—and the chance of individual glory.

The IOC spokesman, Mark Adams, said today that the legal process had to be allowed to run its course.

“For all concerned, not just the Russian athlete, we need a resolution and we are working as fast as we can to get that,” he told a briefing in Beijing.

“We took every action we thought was important, always remembering that the emphasis was on the individuals, that we don’t have mass justice against groups of people. We take out individuals who are proven guilty.”

News that Valieva’s sample sat untested for so long, even as she broke out to become the biggest star in her sport, will fuel accusations in Russia itself that there is a conspiracy against the young Russian skaters who have dominated the sport over the past decade.

Among those voicing support for Valieva after confirmation of the failed drugs test was skating legend Katarina Witt, who won Olympic gold medals for East Germany in 1984 and 1988.

“What they knowingly did to her, if true, cannot be surpassed in inhumanity and makes my athlete’s heart cry infinitely,” Witt said in a Facebook post reported by Reuters.

“Those latest terrible Olympic skating news, have honestly touched me. Kamila Valieva is a young girl and child prodigy, whose highly difficult performances and grace enchanted the whole world at only 15, a minor, depending on adults and she is not to blame here.”

Also weighing in was was Travis T. Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, who warned that American prosecutors could use the Rodchenkov Act to target individuals in the Valieva case. The Act, named after the Russia lab chief who blew the whistle on doping at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, allows prosecutors to seek hefty fines and jail terms for those involved in doping, even for non-Americans if their actions affect the results of American athletes.

“It is a catastrophic failure of the system to allow the star of the Games to have her sample not reported back close to five weeks, and then it gets reported the day after they won the team event,” Tygart told Reuters.

“You cannot make it up. We are living in the twilight zone. Clean athletes deserve better, and this poor young woman deserves better. She’s getting chewed up on top of being abused by the Russian state system.”

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