When the 2022 Winter Olympics come to an end, it’s clear that one story will dominate the history of these Games: the doping scandal involving figure skater Kamila Valieva. The 15-year-old athlete, who represents the Russian Olympic Committee, reportedly tested positive for trimetazidine, a medicine intended to treat heart conditions that has been banned for potentially improving endurance. Following a hearing with the Court of Arbitration For Sport (CAS), Valieva was permitted to return to competition ahead of the women’s individual event, with the case to be heard at a later date.
The ruling sent shockwaves through the sport of figure skating and the Olympic community at large. While one can argue that there’s no such thing as an entirely level playing field — there will always be someone who’s naturally taller or shorter, or whose wealth affords them better training — clean sport is supposed to be a universal value. It’s a sacred tenet that everyone should be striving for excellence fairly. And when someone does cheat, the expectation is that they will be dealt with swiftly and that fairness will be upheld. How were the other women in Beijing supposed to go out there and skate, knowing the competition wasn’t fair? How were the other athletes who had spent years going through the indignities of anti-doping protocols supposed to feel now?
With the integrity of the Games in crisis, the International Olympic Committee announced that there would be no medal ceremonies for events in which Valieva made the podium. That meant that no medals would be awarded in the figure skating team event — where Valieva and her ROC teammates finished first — or in the women’s final if Valieva, who was favored to win gold, placed in the top three. Even the thought of it was crushing. That moment of receiving a medal, under the light of the Olympic flame, with your national flag raised, is a central part of the Olympic experience. No medal awarded once the case had been settled could replicate it, or even come close.
But there would, in fact, be a medal ceremony in the women’s event. Skating last, Valieva’s free skate seemed to go wrong from the start. She under-rotated and stepped out of her opening quad salchow, and things never improved. She fell twice and only landed one or two jumping passes cleanly. Her uncharacteristically disastrous performance not only bumped her out of gold medal position, but off the podium altogether. Teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova took gold and silver, respectively, and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto earned the bronze.
The actual standings, however, were nothing compared to the meltdown that followed. As Valieva walked backstage, Trusova was seen sobbing, screaming, and even apparently refusing to go to the podium at one point. NBC commentator Johnny Weir translated some of her distraught words as, “I can’t see this. I won’t see this.” Valieva was in tears and being comforted by what appeared to be an Olympics volunteer, while Shcherbakova stood alone and stony-faced, without anyone from her team to congratulate her. Even Sakamoto’s happy tears seemed burdened and disbelieving at first, although she appeared much happier as the minutes went on, skipping out onto the ice and later gleefully embracing teammate Wakaba Higuchi in one of the sweeter moments of a devastating and chaotic event.
This is certainly not the Olympics anyone dreamed of, overshadowed by a doping scandal and all the questions it has raised.
The panel deciding Valieva’s case, citing her age, ruled that preventing her from competing in the Olympics would “cause her irreparable harm.” Yet it’s hard to imagine interpreting the scene after the women’s final, with a heartbroken Valieva surrounded but not comforted by the same adults who are suspected of failing her, as anything other than that very “irreparable harm” the CAS was trying to prevent. And though her competitors were able to stand atop the podium, what should have been a joyful career pinnacle instead was dimmed by the shadow of an enormous scandal — one that may be tied to a larger culture of abuse — breaking open in front of the world.
Although nothing can truly diminish what these Olympians — both in figure skating and in other sports — have done, it must not feel that way for them right now. This is certainly not the Olympics anyone dreamed of, overshadowed by a doping scandal and all the questions it has raised, and it has dampened everyone’s Olympic experience. Perhaps that, in the end, is the saddest realization of all: no one really “won” here.