Russia has managed to make a mockery of the most established sporting event in history and continues to escape virtually unscathed from any consequences. This year’s Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics have only served as further proof, as Kamila Valieva, a 15 year-old figure skater, was allowed to continue competing despite testing positive for banned substances. In the pursuit of athletic prowess, Russia’s thirst for gold has allowed for the exploitation of its athletes, while other countries’ competitors suffer for Russia’s refusal to comply with the rules.
While this past month has revived the controversy and reopened the discussion, this issue is far from new. In 2015, a Russian state-run doping program was revealed from an independent commission. According to The Washington Post, this elaborate system included “shadow laboratories, destroyed urine samples and surveillance of lab workers by Russian intelligence agents.” What followed was a massive investigation in which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) retested samples, revealing that at least 15 Russian medalists from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics had been a part of this state-sponsored doping program.
As of 2019, Russia was theoretically barred from competing in the Olympics by the World Anti-Doping Agency and excluded for four years from international competitions. But while the country’s flag and anthem are no longer present at The Games, Russian athletes were allowed to continue participating as members of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). The tune has changed a bit: the national anthem being replaced by Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, and a slight redesign of the flag, but with 214 athletes, the ROC represents one of the biggest teams in Beijing. Additionally, the four-year ban was reduced to only two years, and ultimately, the ban has proved to be a sham, failing to deter cheating.
This doping conflict came to a head this year at the women’s figure-skating competition, where Valieva, the skater favored to win gold, tested positive for the prohibited substance trimetazidine. This drug is used as medication to treat chest pain by improving blood supply and oxygen to the heart. By increasing blood flow, this substance can also increase stamina and endurance. However, due to her age, Valieva is considered a “protected person,” and was allowed to compete even after her failed test, much to the anger of almost everyone involved in these games.
Adam Rippon, a former skater and current coach to one of the U.S. competitors, seemed to summarize this frustration well in a series of tweets: “I am so angry. The ladies’ event tomorrow is a complete joke. It’s not a real competition and it most likely won’t even have a medal ceremony. So many Olympic experiences [were] stolen from clean athletes who got here without the help of performance enhancing drugs. What a shame.”
This anger, although undeniable, was not directed at Valieva. At only 15 years-old, the age of most freshmen here at Pace Academy, the pressure and exploitation she has been subject to is unimaginable. The laughable defense of the Russian legal team was that she took her grandpa’s stash of medication; however, it’s apparent that this doping is a nationwide issue that cannot be blamed on a child. The adults around her failed her. Her federation failed her. What could have been an Olympic gold medal winner instead became an international scandal.
At the free-skate event, days of intense pressure finally made her collapse under the weight of criticism as she fell four times on the ice. Someone who had been seen as unbeatable only a couple weeks before failed to secure a spot at the podium at all. Immediately after breaking down on the side of the rink, Valieva was recorded at her lowest point, bawling and medalless, while the media tore her apart for the decisions of the adults around her. Those who had sworn to protect her and help her advance betrayed her for their own profit.
While her teammate, Anna Shcherbakova, was crowned champion, her achievement was overshadowed not only by Valieva’s breakdown, but their third teammate, Alexandra Trusova, as well. The 17 year-old, had just won a silver medal, but she sobbed at her result, declaring “Everyone has a medal, everyone has, but I don’t! I hate it all. I’m never going to skate again.” Her statements were heartbreaking to viewers across the world; these three teenagers, who had just placed 1st, 2nd, and 4th in the world, were all either unhappy or devastated by their result. The expectation of perfection, which drove the federation to likely assist in this doping scandal, ruined the childhoods of these skaters.
The evidence from this year’s Winter Olympics has proved the obvious: the Russian “ban” was clearly not effective. An investigation needs to be launched and the solution to this problem is clear. Rather than blaming the athletes (who frequently are young, naive and under intense pressure) coaches and authority figures need to be held accountable. This doping problem is a statewide issue that has become too widespread to allow Russia to continue competing without a restructuring of their Olympic administration.