The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled Monday that 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva will be allowed to compete in the Beijing Olympics. That means she will take the ice in the women’s figure skating event, where she is a gold medal favorite, on Tuesday.
The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) had provisionally suspended Valieva for testing positive for a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). The sample was collected in December, but the positive test was not reported by the lab until last week. When Valieva appealed the suspension, RUSADA lifted it—and the International Skating Union (ISU), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and WADA contested the lifting of the suspension, asking the CAS to rule on its merit.
The CAS decided that Valieva should not be suspended for several reasons, including that, being under 16, she is a “protected person” under the doping agency’s rules, meaning that she may not have full agency over decisions about medications or other substances she may take. Also factoring in the decision is the fact that the positive test occurred on Dec. 25, before Jan. 27, which is when Olympic jurisdiction over doping testing begins. Finally, the results of Valieva’s positive test were not provided to RUSADA until Feb. 7, the day that Valieva competed in the finals of the team event, preventing her from having enough time to prepare a defense or other legal support. In that competition, she made Olympic history by becoming the first female skater to land a quadruple jump at the Games.
The decision means that—at least for now—the standings for the team skating event, in which the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) earned gold, the U.S. silver and Japan bronze stand. Additionally, Valieva will be allowed to compete in the women’s event. She appeared at her assigned training session on Monday in Beijing.
The decision does not mean, however, that the issue is resolved. The CAS specifically noted that its conclusion is focused only on the validity of the lifting of the suspension, and that “it was not requested to rule on the merits of this case, nor to examine the legal consequences relating to the results of the team event in figure skating, as such issues will be examined in other proceedings.”
The controversial doping case began when a Russian newspaper reported a day after the team figure skating event concluded that Valieva had tested positive for a banned substance.
On Feb. 11, the International Testing Agency (ITA) confirmed the positive test, for a heart drug called trimetazidine, which is on WADA’s banned list because it can help athletes to boost blood flow and therefore endurance. According to the ITA, Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine at the Russian national championships in December, in a sample collected by RUSADA. That sample was sent to a WADA-certified lab in Stockholm, Sweden for processing. However, the results were not reported back to RUSADA until Feb. 7. In a statement, RUSADA said it issued a provisional suspension for Valieva, which the skater appealed, and after a hearing on Feb. 9, RUSADA decided to lift the suspension, allowing her to continue training for the women’s singles event.
The case is far from over. Valieva still tested positive for a banned substance, and the circumstances surrounding that still need to be investigated. It’s not clear, for example, whether Valieva has a valid reason for taking the heart drug, or was using it illegally. RUSADA’s initial suspension suggests there may not be a medical reason for the medication, which calls into question the role that the adults around Valieva played in the case.
The IOC said Monday that it would respect the court of arbitration’s decision, but also made clear that the matter involving Valieva is yet to be settled. The organization announced that the team figure skating medal ceremony will not take place at the Beijing Olympics—neither would the women’s figure skating medal ceremony if Valieva makes the podium in that event. Instead, the ceremonies will happen “once the case of Ms. Valieva has been concluded.” The IOC also asked the ISU to allow an additional skater to make the cut for the final day of the women’s event.
WADA criticized the CAS’ decision, saying that the court “decided not to apply” the terms of the World Anti-Doping Code, which lays out regulations across sport, to the Vaileva case. The rules, WADA said, do not have exemptions for “protected persons” under 16 to avoid mandatory suspension in the event of a positive drug test.
The agency also criticized RUSADA for not instructing the lab in Sweden, where Valieva’s sample was sent, to fast-track her results due to the upcoming Olympics.
U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland also expressed disappointment with the decision, noting that “athletes have the right to know they are competing on a level playing field. Unfortunately, today that right is being denied. This appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.”
Russian athletes in Beijing are already competing under a doping sanction. They compete as the ROC, not Russia, and are not allowed to use their country flag or hear their anthem if they win gold.
While Valieva may skate on Tuesday, the event will be overshadowed by the specter of a banned substance, and inevitable questions about whether her accomplishments on the ice can be traced to an unfair advantage—rather than celebrating a talented young skater who made history. Figure skaters have expressed support for the young athlete on social media, calling for Olympic officials to investigate and punish the adults who put her in this difficult position.
“The adults around her have completely failed her,” 2018 Olympic bronze medalist Adam Rippon wrote on Twitter. “They’ve put her in this awful position and should be punished. I blame those in charge. Flops”
Olympic gold medalist Katarina Witt agreed, saying on her feed that. “[Valieva] is not to blame here. If anything, the responsible adults should be banned from sport forever.”
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