Five-ring Circus

Russia Is the Only Winner in the Kamila Valieva Mess

What did the IOC think was going to happen?

Valieva looking concerned as she skates
Valieva training at the Capital Indoor Stadium practice rink in Beijing on Monday. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The one thing that seems clear about the most recent twist in the most recent Russian Olympic doping scandal—or, at least, as clear as anything about this convoluted story can seem—is that Kamila Valieva is not, ultimately, the problem. On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the 15-year-old Russian figure skater, who in December tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, could continue to compete in the 2022 Beijing Games. The ruling prompted a torrent of righteous outrage, expressed most pithily by the NBC figure skating commentator Johnny Weir: “I have to condemn this decision with every ounce of my soul.”

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Weir’s anger is completely understandable. Valieva is a phenom who already led the Russians to gold in the team figure skating event and is favored to win the individual competition this week. By allowing her to compete even in light of the positive test, the CAS is arguably sanctioning a nonlevel playing field. But while Valieva sits at the eye of the storm that is currently roiling the 2022 Beijing Games, the storm itself belongs to a much more persistent weather system that has clouded international sports for years. And with that, I’m Justin Peters, your Metaphor Meteorologist. Back to you, Mike Tirico!

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Anyway—banning Valieva from competing this week would only solve a very specific problem: that it’s unfair to the other skaters to allow Valieva to participate after her positive test. This issue is real, and it certainly matters to the rest of the competitors, but focusing on it misses a more salient point. The Valieva scandal is a symptom of a systemic problem that’s much bigger than one 15-year-old skater.

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The brief decision to lift Valieva’s provisional suspension hinged on two major factors: the skater’s age and the timing of the test results. First, at 15, Valieva is what the World Anti-Doping Code deems a “protected person,” meaning, basically, that because of her age she is thought to bear less personal responsibility for doping transgressions. According to the arbitrators, the WADC gives no clear guidance for suspending protected persons, even as it allows for “different standards of evidence and for lower sanctions in the case of protected persons.” (In a press release Monday, the World Anti-Doping Agency disputed this, claiming that the WADC “does not allow for specific exceptions to be made in relation to mandatory provisional suspensions for ‘protected persons’, including minors.”)

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Second, the arbitrators noted that there was a six-week gap between when the test was taken in December 2021 and when Valieva was notified of the results in February 2022, and found that the late notification “impinged upon the Athlete’s ability to establish certain legal requirements for her benefit, while such late notification was not her fault, in the middle of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.” (WADA also disputed this rationale in its Monday press release.)

Noting that Valieva did not test positive during the Games itself, and that she would still be subject to disciplinary procedures relating to the positive test, the arbitrators deemed that Valieva would suffer “irreparable harm” if she were to be excluded from the Olympics. I can follow the panel’s logic even if I don’t necessarily agree with it. Valieva would be irreparably harmed by not being able to compete in the individual event. Russia always seems to have some new 15-year-old skating phenom on whom to pin its Olympic hopes: Yulia Lipnitskaya in 2014, Alina Zagitova in 2018, Valieva this year. If Valieva doesn’t get the chance to skate for a medal in Beijing, odds are that she won’t get a second chance in 2026. That’s the irreparable harm.

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But what about those other skaters in the individual event? Might not they, too, be irreparably harmed by being made to compete against a skater who tested positive for a banned substance, a skater who might carry an unnatural advantage into the competition? Yep, that’s a fair point—one that the arbitrators’ ruling did not bother to take into account. But I think that the arbitrators, too, may have been taking a broad view of who deserves harm in this case, if only from a different angle. In its ruling, the panel noted that it considered “proportionality,” among other principles. And I think there’s a case to be made that it would be disproportionately unfair to make Valieva take all of the punishment when it’s very clear that she does not deserve all of the blame.

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For one thing, it bears repeating that Valieva is only 15 years old; her age matters here. The World Anti-Doping Code notes that protected person status is relevant in doping matters in part because, “below a certain age or intellectual capacity, an Athlete or other Person may not possess the mental capacity to understand and appreciate the prohibitions against conduct contained in the World Anti-Doping Code.” This isn’t just smarmy law-talk here. It corresponds with what we know about developing brains, and it aligns with the same reasons it is generally unjust for juveniles to be tried as adults in court.

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Aside from any questions of Valieva’s “protected person” status, it’s also reasonable to think that it might not have been her idea to dope, or that she might not have been able to say no to the person who did have the idea. Valieva trains with Eteri Tutberidze, a polarizing figure in the skating world who is known for what some say are harsh methods. Tutberidze coached the 15-year-old Lipnitskaya in 2014 and the 15-year-old Zagitova in 2018, and while both athletes won medals at their respective Olympics, neither has since gone on to sustainable skating careers. Three years after Sochi, according to the Wall Street Journal, Lipnitskaya entered residential treatment for anorexia. Zagitova, also according to the Journal, spent her time in Pyeongchang barely eating and barely even drinking water, instead just swishing it around in her mouth; she is currently ranked 71st in the ISU 2021/2022 World Standings.

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In other words, this isn’t Ted Lasso we’re dealing with here. Tutberidze is a coach with a habit of using skaters up quickly because, for her, they are an infinitely renewable resource. Russia, too, has a track record of prioritizing short-term athletic results over sustainable success. Over the past decade, the country has pushed sports doping more systematically than any other nation that we know about.

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None of this is meant to exonerate Valieva. It’s just to say that the idea that she acted alone and therefore deserves a solo punishment borders on ludicrous. The real problem isn’t that Valieva tested positive for a banned substance in December; it’s that the IOC has abdicated its responsibility to impose meaningful consequences on a country with a very recent history of publicly flaunting the rules against doping in international sport. The arbitrators and Valieva were only in these positions to begin with because of the bureaucratic rot undergirding the Olympic project.

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In 2016, a whistleblower implicated Russia in a massive state-sponsored sports doping scheme that completely tainted the country’s dominant performance at the 2014 Sochi Games. According to Grigory Rodchenkov, who had run Russia’s so-called anti-doping lab in 2014, Russian operatives had spent the Games secretly swapping out tainted urine samples for clean ones. “People are celebrating Olympic champion winners, but we are sitting crazy and replacing their urine,” Rodchenkov told the New York Times. The scandal encompassed a dozen Russian medalists from Sochi.

The IOC’s response was neither swift nor harsh. Though the sportocrats initially suspended Russia from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics, they also proposed a very strange compromise. Russia itself would be banned from the Pyeongchang Games; its flag would not be flown and no medals would accrue to its all-time total. Clean Russian athletes, however, would be allowed to apply to come to Pyeongchang and compete under the banner of a new, temporary entity: Olympic Athletes From Russia, or OAR.

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It was a distinction without a difference. The athletes still lived and trained in Russia. The television commentators often announced them as being from Russia. For all intents and purposes, Russia had suffered no meaningful consequences for its doping program. Who cared whether or not the medals won in 2018 were marked in Russia’s official ledger? The broad outlines of this strange compromise continued at both last summer’s Tokyo Games and the current Beijing Games, where Russian athletes were allowed to compete under the aegis of a new moniker: the Russian Olympic Committee, or ROC. Putin was the guest of Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony this year, and he wasn’t there just out of disinterested love of sport. He was there because the ROC athletes are competing for Russia.

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The IOC’s decision to shun “Russia” but welcome Russian athletes has failed. It has always been a horrible solution to a problem that just gets worse over time. If anything, the half-measure likely emboldened at least some Russian Olympic authorities, trainers, coaches, and athletes to believe that there was always a way around the anti-doping rules. Valieva’s continued presence at the Games is proof enough of that. She received more lenient treatment on doping issues than an older athlete would, but she isn’t competing in some 15-year-old division of the Olympics. She’s competing against older competitors who would be treated much more harshly by the same authorities if they were to log a positive test. Entering very young athletes into marquee events clearly offers a path for Russia to push the limits of the doping policies.

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Among major Olympic players, Russia alone has shown itself both willing and able to ignore anti-doping rules and to work hard to find ways to let its implicated athletes still continue to compete. Valieva’s initial provisional suspension was both imposed and then lifted by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, which fought for her to be allowed to continue to compete at the Games. Compare this to the consequences that American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson faced last year after testing positive for marijuana before the Tokyo Games. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and Richardson herself accepted what both described at the time as simple compliance with a dubious WADA rule.

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Doesn’t this mismatch in how different nations treat the finality of WADA-banned substances and WADA-imposed suspensions create an unlevel playing field? The rules mean very little if most nations accept them to the point that they follow the rules to the letter no matter how dumb they are, while a lone state has shown that it will fight the rules’ validity no matter how clear the violation. Rules don’t work if following them is optional, and if flouting them comes without consequence. But by allowing Russia to get away with it for this long, that’s exactly the world that the IOC has created.

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