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But there was one event on Thursday that has left a pit in the stomachs of many and raised further questions about the Olympics, which this year were already dogged by concerns of human rights abuses long before the athletes arrived in China.
Kamila Valieva – arguably among the best female figure skaters, perhaps the best figure skater, in the world – began her free skate program with what many described as a look of fear on her face. It didn’t take long for things to go terribly wrong. Valieva, who days before seemingly effortlessly landed quadruple jumps, stumbled and fell to the ice twice.
Her hopes of a gold medal vanished and she buried her face in her gloved hands when the music had stopped. As she left the ice, Valieva was scolded by her coach. Her Russian teammates, who won gold and silver medals after Valieva fell from medal contention, looked stunned and distraught.
There were, it seemed, no real winners in this situation.
Let’s back up a bit and add some details. Valieva is just 15. She is competing for the Russian Olympic Committee, a group of athletes that is allowed to compete without using the Russian flag or anthem because the country of Russia was banned from most international competitions through 2022 after widespread state-sponsored doping in the 2014 winter Olympics held in Sochi.
Valieva herself failed a drug test. The test, which was given in December but with results provided after the Olympics had already begun, found a banned heart medication. An attorney for Valieva said she had somehow ingested the medication, which her grandfather was taking for heart issues.
The banned drug, Trimetazidine, could give athletes an edge by increasing their endurance and allowing them to train longer. It is not approved for any use in the U.S.
Again, Valieva is just 15.
This is relevant for several reasons, all of them concerning. Valieva was favored to win a gold medal in Beijing because of her spinning and jumping prowess. She was the first female skater to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics, landing two during the team competition on Feb. 7. This event, in which the Russian won the gold medal, came before the drug test results. Quads, which are relatively new and rare in women’s figure skating, require skill, power and physics. Small, skinny young skaters are best equipped to do them. By the next winter Olympics, when Valieva would be 19, her body likely would not be able to complete quadruple jumps.
In other words, there is an incentive for coaches to recruit and groom young skaters and to push them to do the most difficult feats while they are still children.
And, perhaps, there is an incentive to add performance-enhancing drugs to the mix.
After the positive drug test results, the Court of Arbitration for Sport quickly considered Valieva’s case to determine if she would be allowed to continue in the individual competition. The committee decided that she would be allowed to skate, in part, because of her age.
If Valieva had won a medal, there would have been no medal ceremony, a weird way to settle a major problem that calls for far more action from the International Olympic Committee.
Many have called for the committee to increase the minimum age for competition in Olympic figure skating. That may help. But, it doesn’t answer questions of racism raised by American runner Sha’Carri Richardson, who was banned from the summer Olympics in Tokyo after she tested positive for marijuana. “The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady,” Richardson posted on Twitter on Monday.
To be fair, there were some uplifting moments in these Olympics, including 36-year-old Lindsey Jacobellis winning a gold medal in snowboard cross in her fifth Olympics (she added another gold winning the mixed team snowboard cross with Nick Baumgartner) and skater Nathan Chen’s stunning gold-medal performances.
Yet, organizers of the winter Olympics, which face concerns about their continued viability as the climate warms, have many questions to answer. These include questions about allowing authoritarian countries to host the games, about Russia’s continued involvement despite ongoing doping problems and, most pressing, about the safety and wellbeing of Olympic athletes, especially those who are victimized by the system the IOC has perpetuated and rewarded.