Unless you have been avoiding news about the ongoing Winter Olympics, you no doubt have heard about the controversy surrounding Russian female figure skater Kamila Valieva. She tested positive for a banned heart medication in December before the Russian championships. She also supposedly had two other, not banned, medications that affect the heart in her sample. The result only came back toward the end of January—a victim of COVID testing backlog at the Swedish lab where the sample was sent. Why a heart medication for someone without a heart problem? It increases blood flow to the heart muscle, strengthens contractions, and at least potentially endurance on the day of its use. It has also been reported that the 15-year-old skater’s grandfather uses heart medication and that she possibly took it by accident.
Part of the issues with how the Russian doping agency and the IOC handled things is the fact the athlete is a minor…but she’s hardly the only minor in the Olympics. Part of the problem is that the young lady is Russian, and Russia has made such a habit of doping that they currently can only compete as “the Russian Olympic Committee” and not as Russia per se. When their athletes win a gold medal, they do not hear Russia’s national anthem at the medal award ceremony.
How the IOC system is actually supposed to happen, though, is that a confirmed positive test is supposed to result in suspension of the athlete competing until/unless cleared of wrongdoing. Ms. Valieva should not have been allowed to compete by their rules…but she was. We still do not know if the whole thing was a mistake, or if some adult pressured her into using a banned substance or what. The ROC won gold in the team skating event, and she was a big part of that success—but the medals have still not been awarded a week and a half later. It was announced there would be no medal ceremony for women’s figure skating either if she placed in the top 3, let alone win the gold as she was expected to do. She saved everyone from that by falling during her free skate and finishing 4th. She then broke down in tears.
In the past week Valieva has become the poster child for doping in sports. It was decided she should be allowed to compete as not doing so could cause her “irreparable harm.” However, has she not sustained “harm” being the target of vitriol over something that may not even be her fault? What if it really was an accident? What if she was coerced? Emotionally it would certainly have hurt if she were left off the ROC team due to the positive test, but hardly anyone would have talked about it. Even if she ultimately received the standard 2-year suspension in the end (which she has not, yet), she’d have been back well in advance of the 2026 Winter Olympics, and very few would have talked about it. Instead, she is now world famous for wrong reasons.
Not following the rules in her case took a bad situation and made it worse. For many, the scandal is now the central story of this Olympics, above COVID issues, and above spectacular athletic performances. At least following the rules as written would have prevented that.
Better still? Use baseball’s system. If a MLB player tests positive for a banned substance, no result is announced and no suspension is handed down until any appeals are exhausted. We, the fans, do not know about any of it until the final decision is made. In that scenario, if Valieva ultimately got her positive test thrown out, we’d never hear about it at all. She’d have competed, won whatever she won, and nobody would have any thoughts about whether she deserved it. Yes, that means sometimes a person gets their medal revoked and awarded to someone else after the fact—but that’s better than humiliating a 15-year-old girl who may be guilty of nothing. Plus, Olympics happen only every four years, missing out while awaiting final word on punishment really is unfair to the not-guilty athlete.
Sports is entertainment. Doping scandals are very not entertaining. Please do not tell me someone used any sort of PED wrongfully until it is necessary—ie, until after final adjudication and full due process.