Content warning: This article mentions eating disorders.
It has been a week since the closing ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics, which was marred by quarantined athletes and the specter of the Chinese government’s treatment of the Uyghur people and ensuing diplomatic sanctions. However, one controversy drew more attention than any other: the mid-Olympics report of star Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s positive drug test.
The test, which came up positive for the banned heart medication trimetazidine, as well as two other legal heart medications, was from Dec. 25, when 15-year-old Valieva was competing at the Russian Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg. It was not processed and released until Feb. 8, one day after Valieva and the Russian Olympic Committee took first place in the team event. While the medal ceremony was postponed by the International Olympic Committee, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Feb. 14 that Valieva would be able to compete in her remaining events due to her protected status as a minor.
The investigation into the positive test could take months. In the meantime, the other medalists in the team event and short program in which Valieva placed first will not receive their medals or stand up on the podium. It is heartbreaking to think that athletes who worked their whole life for a chance to compete on sport’s biggest stage did not get to have their moment in the spotlight.
Equally heartbreaking was the footage of Valieva breaking down after her uncharacteristically shaky free skate, during which she fell several times, placing fourth. As Valieva skated off the ice crying, her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, was heard scolding her. “Why did you let it go? ... Why did you stop fighting?” Tutberidze said.
Tutberidze is infamous in the skating world. Starting from near obscurity after a failed figure skating career and attempts to coach in America in the ‘90s, Tutberidze rose to prominence after the stunning performance of Yulia Lipnitskaya, whom she coached, at the 2014 Olympics. She has been training the world’s top female skaters ever since.
The Tutberidze-trained Russian skaters rise above others largely due to their ability to perform quadruple jumps — several in a single performance. Long thought impossible for women to achieve, quad jumps involve rotating four times in the air and place tremendous pressure on the body. Only the lightest bodies can achieve them. Valieva is one of only 12 women to land them, but they are quickly becoming a necessity to take the top spots in international competitions.
However, concerns have been raised about Tutberidze’s coaching methods and the suspiciously short careers of the girls she trains. “Eteri girls,” as the athletes are known, have described training methods that involve carefully restricting diets and taking puberty blockers to remain light enough to perform quad jumps. Three years after the 2014 Olympics, at the age of 17, Lipnitskaya, the original Eteri girl, retired, explaining that she was seeking help for anorexia. This follows a 2014 comment by Tutberidze claiming that she was happy Lipnitskaya could survive on “powdered nutrients.”
Many Eteri girls have also retired in their teens due to back and leg injuries that rendered them unable to skate, unlike past stars such as Michelle Kwan who continued to compete, though not at the Olympic level, until the age of 26. While many praise Tutberidze for helping to advance the sport, the question remains whether these spectacular quad jumps are worth the costs of achieving them, particularly for young athletes. For this reason, many have called for the minimum age to be raised to 17 for Olympic figure skaters, though others point out that it may put additional dangerous pressure on these older skaters to maintain the body shape required to land quad jumps.
Another question raised by this situation concerns the fairness and efficacy of doping rules in sports. Though trimetazidine is believed to make the heart work more efficiently, thus allowing athletes to train for longer periods of time and recover more quickly, there is little proof that it makes a difference, particularly in a sport like figure skating. Some people argue that there is little evidence that many of the drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency can actually impact performance, though others point out that the placebo effect can be substantial, regardless of the efficacy of the drug itself.
The situation brings to mind another recent incident — when Sha’Carri Richardson was banned from the Tokyo Summer Olympics after a drug test came up positive for marijuana. Marijuana is not performance enhancing, and many other sports agencies no longer consider it a banned substance. Though USA Track and Field agreed that marijuana rules should be reevaluated, it upheld Richardson’s ban to maintain fairness for the athletes. Though Valieva was allowed to compete by a different agency and her age was considered a factor, it’s clear that their cases were treated very differently revealing deep issues in Olympic doping policies. Ultimately, regardless of her age, Valieva should not have been allowed to continue competing out of fairness to other athletes who accept the rules.
Valieva and her lawyers claim that the trimetazidine likely made it into her system from sharing a drink with her grandfather who takes it daily. However, Russia’s years of Olympic doping cover-ups cast doubt on this story. In the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia conducted a state-sponsored doping scheme, which is why its athletes have competed under the Russian Olympic Committee flag, and has repeatedly covered up positive drug tests. It is likely that Valieva was given the drug by the adults around her, and was unaware of this breach of the rules. Her coaches and team will be investigated over the next few months.
Ultimately, the greatest victim is Valieva herself and other young, vulnerable athletes like her. At the age of 15, she has been placed under tremendous pressure on the world’s biggest stage. The footage of her breakdown and the experiences of other Russian figure skaters suggests that she receives little support or compassion. Russia has repeatedly proven that its determination to win supersedes any other consideration, including fairness and the well-being of its athletes. It is far past the point where we must examine athletic institutions for their exploitation and mistreatment of young athletes.