If this were a movie, this would be the crucial, emotional scene. Here sits a sobbing, solitary ice skater, the hotel mirror before her reflecting efforts to wipe tear-stained makeup from her face. With no one left to perform for, and nowhere to turn for help, she has nothing left to do but peel away all the pretty trappings of on-ice glamour. Strands of pinned-up hair are released and fall toward her shaking shoulders. She is the picture of grief.
In another scene not far away, a second solitary ice dancer paces the floor of his hotel room in this same, COVID-necessitated bubble in Stockholm. Similarly trapped and helpless, he is consumed more by shock than sadness, a creeping guilt coming over him as he absorbs what he has just been told. At this moment, he believes he has cost himself and his partner the chance of a lifetime. And there is nothing he can do about it.
This is our leading couple: Tina Garabedian and Simon Proulx-Sénécal. They are Armenian figure skaters who hoped to represent their country at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, but who found themselves robbed of competing at the World Championships in March because of erroneous and late COVID-19 testing. And as much as theirs might be an isolated case, as they continue to fight to rectify an egregious and heartbreaking mistake over which they had absolutely no control, their battle should be noted by Olympians everywhere, including those heading to Tokyo for the upcoming Summer Games. What happened to them is a red flare across all Olympic sports, where COVID protocols that are so very necessary have the flip side potential for disaster.
What if the test was wrong? And what if nobody seems to care that it is?
In the spirit of script writing, some exposition.
Tina, 24, and Simon, 29, have been partners on the ice since 2015, training together in Montreal, where they live. They departed for Worlds after getting all necessary negative tests, finally ready to unveil their beloved “Mamma Mia” ice dance routine after countless months of pandemic inaction. They stayed in the International Skating Union’s assigned bubble, working, eating and associating only with each other and their team, going back and forth only from their rooms to the rink. They continued to follow testing protocols, including a required four days after their arrival, which was on a Thursday.
Then, at 6:40 a.m. on Friday, the first day of competition, their ordeal began.
That’s when Simon was informed, just hours before the duo’s scheduled 7:50 practice and 1 p.m. start for their Worlds competition group, that he’d tested positive for COVID. The saga would officially end with a 12:54 p.m. text confirming a positive second retest, one that eliminated any chance of getting on the ice. There they were, left to watch, isolated from each other, as a television crawler told the world they’d withdrawn from the competition for health reasons. They’d never conceded anything of the kind.
Hindsight has only made the day worse. The day was marked by a complete lack of communication and the absence of any documentation or evidence outside of text messages presented to the skaters or their coaches, and ended with exclusion from competition. The aftermath continues to tell a much bigger story, including irreparable damage to the human beings at its center.
Because here’s the climax: Subsequent tests not only proved that Simon was never positive, but showed that his second test was negative also, despite what he was told.
The International Skating Union began an investigation, but the pair has yet to hear of any resolution.
“There are so many unanswered questions,” Lisa Lazarus, their lawyer, told the Globe. Having spent a decade working for the NFL in grievance arbitration cases (with the Patriots among her teams), Lazarus, a partner at Morgan Sports Law, specializes now in protecting athletes’ rights in sports disputes. “It’s so hard to say now what happened, but clearly some confusion in the records, and not a very well or no established procedures to follow, led to this.
“I think that there weren’t minimal systems in place. We can’t allow COVID, while of course such an important public health concern, to undermine an athlete’s rights.”
“We don’t know who to blame and we don’t know how all of this story happened,” Simon said, speaking with the Globe alongside Tina and Lazarus on a recent Zoom call. “We feel powerless in a way because we were victims, we couldn’t do anything, speak to anyone, we were in isolation. We let stuff happen to us. Like watching a movie, it happens in your face and you don’t have any power.”
“The whole point of an athlete is to do their job and the fact that COVID is a factor, of course things should be done in consideration to this new thing, but there also has to be a process in place that will prevent things like this from happening,” said Tina. “Do a test two days before, just in case, or have more rapid testing, other options that would have prevented this from happening to us. I hope other organizations and Olympic committees take this seriously and I hope it’s fixed for everyone else in the future.”
Time is running short for the pair, who do have another opportunity at the final Olympic qualifier this September in Germany. But with scores and practice that put them in solid contention for Olympic qualifying standards heading into Stockholm, it’s so hard to let go of the disappointment. Tina wasn’t exaggerating when she said, “I felt like my life was over,” nor Simon when he said, “We will never get back what was stolen from us.”
The robbery resonates locally, too, where a deep and thriving Armenian community would embrace the chance to root the pair on in Beijing. With Massachusetts ranking second only to California nationally among states with the largest Armenian population, and with the tiny former Soviet Union nation under recent attack in a war waged by neighboring Azerbaijan, the chance to grab onto something so uplifting is treasured.
This is how Herman Purutyan, who is the Massachusetts State Chair of Armenian Assembly of America, put it: “The Armenian nation is not in a very good place. Having said that, things like this where you look for any good sign, something to pull people together and to give hope, those are really very serious and significant intangibles the community could use right now. For something like this to happen and be taken away in those circumstances, it just adds to that.”
Indeed it does. And it’s impossible not to wonder — had this been a pair from a medal-contending country like the US or Russia, might there have been more urgency? Of course that shouldn’t matter — the basic ideal of the Olympics is to respect all competition equally, without regard to fame or fortune. But if that ideal is difficult to uphold in the best of times, this unprecedented COVID situation may have further exposed unfair disparities.
And so they wait. This script has no resolution. Yet.
“We have worked so hard towards this dream for years. We followed all the rules, and were completely healthy. To be deprived of such an opportunity because we were given false information has been devastating,” the two said in their official statement. “All we want is the chance to represent our country and show the world that we deserve to be there. We hope the ISU can do a full investigation and make this right.”