The Russians knew Kamila Valieva would win her doping case because they knew she likely couldn’t lose it. Not the way the rules are written, and not the way that her positive sample for a banned heart drug was handled.
Valieva, the 15-year-old skating supernova, was cleared by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to compete in the women’s event, which begins Tuesday, and which she is heavily favored to win.
The International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the International Skating Union all wanted Valieva‘s original suspension upheld. But the CAS ruled Monday that keeping Valieva from competing would have caused her “irreparable harm.”
The court, which deliberately didn’t address whether Russia’s team gold medal should stand, pointed out that as a minor Valieva is a “protected person” and that the WADA code says nothing about whether they’re subject to suspension.
The CAS also noted “serious issues of untimely notification of results,” meaning the inexplicable six-week gap between when Valieva’s sample was sent to the WADA-approved lab in Stockholm and when she was notified of her positive result, which was the day after she helped the Motherland win the team title with an extraordinary free skate.
So Valieva gets to keep skating and Russia may well get to keep the team gold that otherwise would go to the Americans. That will be a question for another day, the Olympic committee said. “It’s a dilemma we are all in and it’s something we’re not happy with,” said IOC spokesman Mark Adams.
Still unclear is why an apparently healthy teenaged girl ingested trimetazidine, a drug meant to treat angina that customarily would be used by a babushka with a bum ticker.
Medical experts disagree as to whether TMZ, as it is known, helps athletic performance. But the drug does increase blood flow to the heart and can boost endurance. Those are helpful qualities in a sport that long ago stopped being about camel spins.
The women now do everything that the men do, including triple axels and quadruple jumps. Valieva’s long program, which includes three quads, one in combination with a triple jump, is more difficult than what many men can handle. Perfecting it requires hundreds of jumps in training, an exhausting regimen that requires exceptional stamina, which is where TMZ might have been useful.
It seems highly improbable that Valieva, the product of a strictly regimented sports system, would have taken the drug on her own, and there is no evidence that she applied for a therapeutic exemption to use it. But given Russia’s history of extensive state-administered doping, it’s more than likely Valieva was ordered to take it by someone involved with the skating federation.
At a time when Russia’s dominance in the other three disciplines — men’s, pairs, and dance — has been dwindling, its women have become unbeatable. They’ve collected the last eight European titles. They’ve claimed five of the last six world championships with four different skaters. And they’ve won the last two Olympic crowns and are favored to sweep the podium in Beijing with Valieva, Anna Shcherbakova, and Alexandra Trusova.
No country ever has done that in the women’s event, but none has had a program with Russia’s quality and depth and youth. All but one of the top 10 finishers at the December national championships were 17 or younger. Adeliia Petrosian and Sofia Samodelkina, who placed fourth and fifth, are 14.
All of them, then, are protected persons under the WADA code. While none of the skaters other than Valieva has tested positive for a forbidden substance, Russia’s skating officials know that they could dope them with impunity if they wanted to.
“This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia,” said USOPC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland.
If the Russians do indeed thumb their noses at doping rules, it’s likely because they’ve paid minimal penalties for breaking them. Most of the sanctions have been symbolic, like not being permitted to compete under their country’s name or use its flag or anthem, which is the case at these Games.
But the Russians were allowed to send a full team to Beijing and they’re sitting second to Norway in the medal table. Their figure skaters won the team title, finished second in dance, and are favored to earn two medals in pairs. If form holds, their women will place 1-2-3 Thursday.
If Valieva is one of them, the IOC has decreed that there will be no medal ceremony and no flowers presented. The committee’s position is that it must follow the rule of law and allow Valieva to compete because her doping case has not yet been concluded, absent the confirmation of her backup sample.
That almost certainly won’t happen until after the Games and the Russians almost certainly will file an appeal if Valieva is banned because she is a protected person and because of the unexplained delay in announcing her test results, which USADA chief Travis Tygart called a “catastrophic failure of the system.”
The team medal presentation already has been postponed indefinitely because of Valieva’s involvement. The women’s presentation likely will be on hold, too. The IOC has promised “to organise dignified medal ceremonies” eventually.
If Valieva or a teammate is the champion, the accompanying music will be Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, not the Russian national anthem. Such is the IOC’s punishment for doping. Where Russia is concerned, symbols have replaced substance.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.