The Olympic women’s figure skating competition ended with a medal ceremony, after all. But the doping scandal that has engulfed it and threatened to prevent medals from being handed out is very much not over.
If Russia’s Kamila Valieva had finished in the top three, there would have been no medal ceremony because she failed a drug test, which found a banned heart medication in her system. She was allowed to compete because the results of the test had been delayed—it was taken in December but the results didn’t emerge until after the team competition in the Olympics had been held—and most of all because, at 15 years old, she is a “protected person” under the World Anti-Doping Code. The Court of Arbitration for Sport decided that disqualifying Valieva from competing in Beijing “would cause her irreparable harm.” But in the end, irreparable harm was all over the place: Valieva, the strong favorite, fell apart under the pressure and placed fourth, while other skaters were visibly affected by the situation, and the Olympics and the sport of figure skating were seriously tarnished.
Russian athletes currently compete in the Olympics under the name of “Russian Olympic Committee” following a state-sponsored doping scandal in 2014. The International Olympic Committee’s protestations notwithstanding, there’s still an issue that needs to be investigated—without question in women’s figure skating, but why stop there?
Valieva’s training partners Alexandra Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova took gold and silver, with Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto winning bronze. The minutes following the event were something of a horror show. Coming off the ice, Valieva was intercepted by her notorious coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who verbally abused the distraught teenager for her failures on the ice. Trusova was irate, apparently at what she viewed as an unfairly low result for a program in which she landed five quadruple jumps, though many observers noted that there were problems with some of those jumps and there was basically nothing else in the program. Shcherbakova sat alone, looking like a sad, lost child rather than someone at what should be a high point of her life. Only Sakamoto showed any joy, trying and failing to get her fellow medalists to participate in a happy podium moment.
Valieva’s loss cannot be taken as a sign that this competition was clean, though. There’s still the outstanding matter of how to handle the team figure skating competition, which Russia won with her help. But we cannot overlook the fact that the gold and silver women’s medals were won by skaters who share a coach with Valieva. A 15-year-old did not undertake a sophisticated doping program on her own. The banned heart medication found in her system, trimetazidine (TMZ), was not the only heart medication Valieva had been taking. The other two are not banned, though. To be clear, this 15-year-old Olympic athlete does not show signs of heart disease. But these drugs could confer a training advantage, allowing her to push herself through harder trainings and master her jumps and programs more fully than a clean athlete could. The three medications “are all aimed, essentially, at increasing endurance, reducing fatigue,” according to U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart, and the U.S. has sought to have one of the allowed ones banned.
Valieva has claimed that her grandfather takes TMZ and she must somehow have gotten it in her system through him. How that would work is unclear, even if we thought it was a plausible explanation coming from someone who admits to taking two other medications that could have related effects. And the level of the drug in her system was substantially higher than you would expect from accidental contamination. “Tygart said, and expert witnesses summoned by Valieva’s team conceded, that the 2.1 nanograms were ‘actually very consistent with the tail end of an excretion,’ if a full dose of TMZ had been taken days earlier,” Yahoo reported.
A 15-year-old did not do this on her own, which needs to focus attention on the adults around her—and on the other skaters they train. It’s possible that only one of Eteri Tutberidze’s skaters has at some point in the recent past been given banned substances, but there are major questions, to say the least, and the International Skating Union needs to investigate them seriously, given the two Eteri-coached skaters at the top of the podium.
The ISU itself is very much part of the problem, though. In 2020, the ISU gave Tutberidze a “best coach” award, despite the red flags flying everywhere. At a minimum, at that point there was a clear public record that the coach was all but forcing her skaters into serious eating disorders and pushing them to train and compete in ways that left them with permanent physical damage before they were out of their teens. “The Eteri girls talk openly about not being able to drink water during competitions,” Rita Wenxin Wang explained the situation at Slate. “They do their best to delay puberty by eating only ‘powdered nutrients’ or by taking Lupron, a puberty blocker known to induce menopause. They are subjected to daily public weigh-ins and verbal and physical abuse. And they compete while injured, huffing ’smelling salts’ while wearing knee braces and collapsing in pain after programs.”
But there was reason to believe that more was at play in Tutberidze’s coaching than extreme eating disorders and abuse, and the ISU has put in serious effort not just ignoring it but celebrating the results. The ISU has pushed quadruple jumps over every other marker of skating quality, with judges overscoring quad-heavy skaters—and especially Eteri skaters—on other aspects of their programs, such that not only does the quad confer a direct advantage in points, but those skaters get stronger component scores than the rules say they have earned. The ISU’s message is that winning requires the quad—a jump that, in women’s figure skating, has only been reliably achieved by skaters in this one particular abusive system.
French ice dancing coach Romain Haguenauer recently suggested just how suspicious that is, saying, “Before Sochi, Russia didn’t shine in women’s figure skating, that’s the one discipline where it was far away from other nations. And by quite a lot! And now, all of a sudden, every year they bring us four new young girls with quads. It’s not a progressive evolution, there’s a phenomenon.” When one training program suddenly comes out with a whole bunch of athletes who can do something that no one else in the world can do, it should be cause for investigation, not celebration. These Russian skaters are not Simone Biles—i.e. once-in-several-generations unique talents. They are products of a system. Russia, led by Eteri Tutberidze, has dominated women’s figure skating in recent years by churning through teenage girls whose careers in the sport cannot last more than a very few years given the damage done to their bodies and their psyches. That is an indisputable fact. Now we have strong evidence that in addition to the abuses that were already publicly reported, Tutberidze’s success has been built on outright doping her skaters.