Thirty athletes took the ice in the Olympic women’s singles figure skating event last week in Beijing. Of the 30, eighteen were teenagers, and the entire field posted a median age of nineteen. The youngest skater was fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Despite her youth, Valieva currently holds the world record for the highest score in women’s skating. Valieva’s Olympic campaign started off exactly how the world expected — completely golden. She placed first in both the women’s short program and free skate segments of the team event, leading the ROC to a decisive gold medal. She was the first woman to land a quadruple jump in Olympic history. However, the day Valieva led her team to victory on Feb. 7 was the same day her drug test taken from the Russian National Championships in December, where she placed first to earn her Olympic berth, returned a positive result for trimetazidine. Suddenly, Valieva’s Olympic pursuit was interrupted by a doping scandal and intense scrutiny by the media.
Trimetazidine is a medication used to treat chest pains caused by angina, but it is prohibited for use in sports as a performance enhancement drug by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Trimetazidine can benefit athletes’ endurance by increasing blood flow to the heart, but it also can disrupt performances by causing dizziness and loss of balance. As a result of her failed drug test, Valieva was immediately provisionally suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA), and the medal ceremony for the team event remains postponed indefinitely until her investigation is over. Valieva appealed her suspension, and on Feb. 9, the RUSADA Disciplinary Anti-Doping Committee removed her provisional suspension, effectively allowing her to continue practicing and competing in Beijing. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Skating Union (ISU), and WADA filed an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to challenge the removal of Valieva’s suspension. On Feb. 13, a hearing was conducted by CAS to decide Valieva’s eligibility to compete in the upcoming women’s singles event. CAS ultimately rejected the appeal by the IOC, ISU, and WADA, which allowed Valieva to continue to compete. CAS cited in the media release that the decision to reject the appeal considered that Valieva, who is under the age of sixteen, is a “Protected Person” under WADA Code. CAS also noted an “untimely notification” of her failed drug test from December, and RUSADA and the WADA Code have little guidance regarding provisional suspensions for protected persons. A “Protected Person” in the WADA Code is an athlete under the age of sixteen, and the minimum consequences of doping can only be a reprimand and no period of ineligibility.
Many questions still remain unanswered in Valieva’s case. Why was the test result not discovered until the day she won a medal in the team event? As a minor, did Valieva knowingly consume a banned substance, or was it not her fault? As to how the drug entered her system, Valieva’s argument was a contamination with her grandfather’s medication. Answering the overall question, should Valieva have been able to compete? Yes. She still has yet to be found at fault in her doping investigation. What if Valieva’s suspension had been upheld but she was later deemed not at fault and missed out on a chance at Olympic competition? The outcome could have been devastating for her: Valieva may not have had the opportunity to skate on Olympic ice again. In recent years, young Russian female figure skaters have not qualified for another Olympics. Many teenage Olympians coached by Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, retired before returning to defend their titles, including Alina Zagitova, who won gold in the individual event at the 2018 Olympics at the age of fifteen, and Evgenia Medvedeva, who won silver in the individual in 2018 at the age of eighteen.
The following day after her hearing ended at 2:10 a.m. local time on Feb. 14, Valieva skated as planned in the women’s singles short program. Despite stumbling on a triple axel, she placed first amongst all skaters. Valieva was the last to take the ice during the free skate on Feb. 17, stumbling several times and falling twice. She left the ice in tears. Her score, not anywhere near her world record, was not high enough for a medal.
Valieva drew lots of criticism from the media after CAS’s decision and her heartbreaking performance that fell short of the podium. Broadcasters and former Olympians Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir commentated on the women’s singles events, staying almost silent in protest during Valieva’s short program. Both expressed their disagreement with CAS’s decision to allow Valieva to skate. Valieva certainly did not deserve the criticism from the Western media, even from Lipinski and Weir, who should well know the pressure that Olympic figure skaters face. Lipinski was just fifteen, the same age as Valieva, when she won the gold medal in the ladies’ singles event. Valieva’s case has also been compared to many doping cases amongst Russian athletes over the last several Olympics, but the media often forgets that Valieva is just a child. She had to spend the days before her event wondering if she could even compete. She had to stay up into the early hours of the morning for her hearing the day before her event. Despite a turbulent Olympic experience, she still finished in fourth place which should be celebrated, though fourth place is often considered a failure at the Olympics. Valieva deserves criticism from no one, especially while her doping case is still not fully resolved.
Valieva was not the only skater who the media focused on throughout the Olympics. Her teammates, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, both age seventeen, took the gold and silver medals in the singles event. All three ROC skaters had to skate with the pressure that they were expected to sweep the podium. Trusova landed five quadruple jumps — a high-scoring feat never achieved before at the Olympics — in her free skate only to learn she took second behind Shcherbakova, who landed only two quadruple jumps. Trusova, after winning the silver, vowed never to skate again and cried after the event. In an interview, she said, “Just because. I wanted to cry, so I cried. I’ve been three weeks alone without my mom, my dogs. So I cry.” With both of her teammates in tears, Shcherbakova’s gold medal was overlooked. Social media criticized Trusova for crying and Valieva for falling. The world had forgotten that the three Russian skaters were still just children.
The trio of Russian teenagers were not the only skaters subject to intense criticism. Zhu Yi, a nineteen-year-old skater competing for China, faced heartbreaking criticism from social media after falling during her short program in the team event. Social media users questioned why Zhu, who was born in California but is now a citizen of China, was able to skate for China. Despite finishing in last place in her segment during the team event, Zhu improved her score in the short program in the singles event. Zhu is yet another young athlete who did not deserve the devastating criticism directed at her.
In the wake of a turbulent Olympics amongst the women’s figure skating event, the ISU will convene in June to consider raising the minimum age in figure skating competition from fifteen to seventeen – a much needed move that will take the pressure away from very young athletes.
No athlete, including the young figure skaters who have trained tirelessly throughout their childhoods to reach the Olympics, deserves to be criticized by the media. Athletes are human. They are allowed to make mistakes in competition, fall, and show emotions. When those things happen at the Olympics, they deserve support, not scrutiny. All of the young figure skaters deserve commemorations for qualifying for the Olympics and performing before the entire world. Congratulations to all of them.