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For any newcomers to the sport, the figure skating section of the Olympics was completely overshadowed by Russian 15-year-old Kamila Valieva’s positive drug test. The implications of this are wide-reaching and bring up a lot of questions: How would a minor be held responsible? Would the adults in her camp be punished? Would she be allowed to compete?
Before the world learned of her positive drug test, Valieva skated on behalf of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the team event, and led them to first place while becoming the first woman to land a quad in the Olympics. Audiences learned a few days later, however, that the medal ceremony would be postponed because of a positive drug test by someone on the ROC team, who was left unnamed for legal reasons. As Valieva was the only minor on the team, fans quickly deduced to whom the test belonged, and it was confirmed a day later.
The men’s individual and pairs competitions came first, leaving people plenty of time to speculate over what would happen with Valieva. Eventually, an emergency panel from the Court of Arbitration for Sport made their decision: Valieva would be permitted to compete. The panel’s decision was mostly based on the fact that the positive test happened in December and she had tested negative twice in the time since then, and that as a minor she might be reprimanded instead of suspended. The panel ruled that not allowing her to compete would risk “irreparable harm” if it was found that she had not cheated.
Despite the ruling, people on social media condemned Valieva for using performance-enhancing drugs. After all, Valieva was competing for the ROC instead of Russia, as Russia was banned from competing in the Olympics after officials ran a state-sponsored doping program in the 2014 Olympics. Many fans believe that Russia did not receive a harsh enough punishment, and all of that resentment found a target in Kamila Valieva.
Even with the pressure, Valieva remained mostly steady in the short program. Though her performance was less than perfect with a fall, Valieva finished the first part of the competition in first place, just under two points ahead of fellow Russian Anna Scherbakova and three ahead of Kaori Sakamoto of Japan.
Prior to the start of the women’s individual event, a spokesperson announced that if Kamila Valieva placed, the medal ceremony would be suspended until a ruling was made on Valieva’s case. That announcement placed even more pressure on Valieva, who would skate last in the free program. Before her came a strong performance by Russian Alexandra Trusova, whose technically incredible five quads, though weak in artistry, put her in first place. After came Sakamoto, whose artistically beautiful program and strong triple axel put her in second place, and after her, Scherbakova, whose two quads in an all but perfect performance rocketed her into first place.
Then came the moment that everyone had been waiting for: Valieva’s free skate. As the music began to play, everyone’s feelings about her competing came to a head. Despite her young age, a positive test meant that she should be removed from the competition, a fact that people all over the world had been discussing on social media. The pressure placed on Valieva’s shoulders was enormous, and indeed, she caved under it. Over the course of her program, Valieva fell twice and landed messily several times, though the artistry and sheer technical difficulty were enough to earn Valieva fourth place.
After Valieva’s score was announced, her coach Eteri Tutberidze berated her for not fighting through the performance even as Valieva broke down crying. Similarly, 17-year-old Trusova cried to a second coach about the unfairness of her second place finish—she had executed five quads, what more could she do? As all three Russian women shared the same coaching pair, Anna Scherbakova, who had just won the Olympics, stood alone, looking lost and clutching a stuffed animal. The only one who seemed even remotely happy was bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto, who cried tears of joy.
Eventually, the three medalists made their way onto the ice for a ceremony that no one had been sure would happen. By that point, Valieva had gone backstage, Trusova had wiped away her tears, and Sherbakova had found a smile, but no one watching could forget the uncomfortable reminder that these skaters were teenagers. Not allowing Valieva to compete might have risked irreparable harm, but allowing her participation might have done so anyway. At the end of the day, Valieva is 15 years old, and Trusova and Scherbakova are only two years older. Allowing teens to participate in a competition under a cloud of potentially state-sponsored drug use is irresponsible both to them and the sport, and is something that cannot continue.