Five-ring Circus

The Possible Olympics Doping Scandal Around the 15-Year-Old Figure Skater Favored to Win Gold (UPDATED)

A primer on how the Russian phenom became suddenly controversial.

Valieva turning on the ice, stony-faced with her arms extended outward and gloved palms up
Kamila Valieva in the figure skating team event during the 2022 Winter Olympics at the Capital Indoor Stadium, in Beijing on Monday. Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, multiple outlets reported a possible doping scandal involving star teenage Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old favored to win gold in the women’s individual competition at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. It’s a huge story that’s shocked the figure skating world and many other Olympics watchers. Here’s what you need to know.

Update Feb. 11, 12:30 p.m.: In a new statement released Friday, the International Testing Agency said that as a protected person due to her age, Valieva’s name and case “are not subject to mandatory public disclosure” and that “any public disclosure must be proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the case.” It also noted, though, that it was providing some “official information” because the media reported it.

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During the Russian Figure Skating Championships on Dec. 25, 2021, Valieva submitted a sample that, on Feb. 8, was found by a WADA-accredited laboratory in Sweden to contain trimetazidine. She was then immediately suspended by RUSADA, Russia’s anti-doping agency. Because of this suspension, she was prohibited from competing in the rest of the Beijing Olympics. The statement further says that because Valieva is a protected person and because the sample was not collected during the Beijing Games and is thus not “under the authority of the IOC,” the ITA (as a partner of the IOC) did not publicly disclose it.

Valieva challenged the decision on Feb. 9, and on the same day, RUSADA lifted her suspension and allowed her to skate in the rest of the Olympics. In other words, Russia’s anti-doping agency is allowing her to compete. According to the ITA’s statement, RUSADA’s rationale behind that decision “will be issued shortly to all concerned parties.” The ITA, on behalf of the IOC, will be appealing RUSADA’s decision in court before waiting for RUSADA to reveal its reasoning, because of the time-sensitive nature of the case. Valieva’s eligibility needs to be decided before the short program competition begins on Tuesday. Our original explainer is below. —Sarah Braner

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What happened exactly? She’s a doper?

It’s not entirely clear if she is just yet. Tuesday night (Eastern time), news broke that the medal ceremony for the Olympic figure skating team competition had been postponed. Russia—still competing as “Russian Olympic Committee,” for relevant reasons we’ll get to later—won this year’s team contest, with Valieva leading the way. A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee only said that the medal ceremony’s delay was due to “a situation arose today at short notice which requires legal consultation with the ISU,” the International Skating Union.

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But this is the only thing that has been publicly confirmed by the IOC. A fair amount of information out there about the whole thing is just rumor, but some stuff has been reported from credible news sources.

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Most importantly, British sports outlet Inside the Games reported that the “legal consultation” IOC required is about Valieva failing a drug test before the Olympics. According to Inside the Games and the Associated Press, Russian news outlets (identified as RBC and Kommersant by the AP) are saying that Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a substance that the World Anti-Doping Agency bans both in and out of competition. NBC confirmed both of these during their Wednesday night telecast.

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Valieva did show up to her scheduled practice time Thursday morning in Beijing, after the news broke, though she declined to answer questions.

Got it. I like figure skating, but I’m not a superfan. Who is this Kamila Valieva? What’s her deal?

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Valieva is the ROC’s biggest figure skating star. If you watched the team figure skating competition, you probably already know who she is. She’s the gold medal favorite for the women’s individual skating event, famous for her ability to land extremely difficult quadruple jumps. She was the first woman ever to complete one on Olympic ice—a quadruple salchow. (You might remember that in 2018, Mirai Nagasu landed a triple axel, and it was a huge deal. Valieva puts that element in between the quad salchow and another quad jump—a quad toe loop, which is then connected to a triple toe loop. That sounds super impressive because it is.) As stated above, the ROC won gold in the team event with her prodigious help, while the U.S. took silver and Japan won bronze. Yes, she’s just 15, but she is really, really good.

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It’s quite possible that, with Valieva competing, the ROC could sweep the women’s individual figure skating event podium. (The Cut said that it was almost certain.) Her teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova both medaled behind Valieva at the European Figure Skating Championships this year, and they can also both land quad jumps. Shcherbakova had won three Russian Nationals titles in a row until Valieva beat her this year.

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But wait a second. If she was doping and on the ROC team that won gold, could they get that medal stripped? And would that mean the U.S. would get the team gold, Japan would get silver, and someone else would get bronze?

It’s possible that Valieva’s score could be disqualified from the competition, which would not quite knock the ROC off the podium. They won the team event with 74 points, 20 of which were won by Valieva, so their adjusted score would be 54—just enough for bronze medal position.* It’s also possible that the ROC gets its medal and result completely stripped and isn’t allowed to keep a reduced score at all. We really don’t know for sure at this point.

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OK. What is this drug, trimetazidine, and why is it banned?

Trimetazidine is used to treat angina pectoris, a condition that causes a lack of blood flow to the heart and manifests as severe chest pain. Used legitimately, it can ease such chest pain. However, it has been implicated in doping scandals before. In 2014, Chinese swimmer and Jerk Watch laureate Sun Yang tested positive for it, and he ended up serving a three-month suspension as a result.

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Why would easing chest pain give a figure skater an unfair advantage? What kind of an edge are we talking about here?

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WADA has trimetazidine listed as a banned “metabolic modulator,” meaning that it affects one’s cardiac metabolism. In this case, it’s not about easing chest pain, it’s about enhancing the function of one’s heart. The idea is that taking trimetazidine with a normal, healthy heart could give her an unfair endurance advantage. (It’s unknown if Valieva has a heart condition that would explain her taking trimetazidine.)

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Figure skating programs don’t go on as long as long-distance races do, but marathoners don’t jump and twirl in the air with weights strapped to their feet. Endurance is critical in a sport where you get tired very quickly, and landing jumps in the back half of your program garners more points. If you have an endurance advantage, it’s going to be easier for you to land those jumps and get those extra points later in your routine, not to mention the other elements that are going to be easier for you to complete as your program proceeds.

I see. I remember that big Russian doping scandal you mentioned. Hasn’t this happened before? Wouldn’t the organizers, you know, be on top of this kind of thing for the ROC in particular?

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Yup! The massive scandal in 2016, where an extensive doping scheme involved many Russian athletes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, was made public by a whistleblower. This is why Russian Athletes are banned from competing under the Russian flag or name until the Beijing Olympics conclude, hence the term “ROC” being used instead of “Russian Federation” throughout these Games and in Tokyo last summer. In the case of an ROC athlete winning gold, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 plays instead of the Russian national anthem. But many, including some from within WADA, criticized the move for mostly being a slap on the wrist, because Russian athletes could still compete—even, in some cases, those who may have participated in the doping scheme. And to casual viewers, it can really look like Russia’s flag just got a makeover and that it adopted a new national anthem.

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What’s going to happen now?

Short answer: It’s complicated. Again, despite the credible news reports, the IOC is only reporting that there is a legal issue that’s postponing the medal ceremony.

At 15, Valieva is one year younger than the age limit to qualify as what WADA defines as a “protected person.” This means that she can “benefit from more flexible sanctioning rules,” according to a document that WADA released detailing changes to its 2021 code. It’s unclear what exactly that’s going to mean for Valieva, but basically, she might not be punished as much as she would be if she were a year older. The key word in WADA’s anti-doping rules is “fault”—the results of all this, like stripping a medal or future suspensions from competition, partially will come from how at fault they determine Valieva to be in this scenario. Essentially, she’s less likely to be found to be at fault because her status as a protected person softens the blow, so it’s less likely that her medal will be stripped and that she’ll be suspended from competition (both of which are possible consequences for doping) than if she were older. This is all still being actively decided though, so we’re not sure what will happen until the IOC announces that a judgment has been made. That should come soon enough; the women’s short program competition begins Feb. 15.

Correction, Feb. 10, 2022: This article originally misstated that the ROC would finish off the podium in the team competition if it is retroactively docked the 20 points that Valieva earned. It would finish in bronze medal position.

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