““She had a positive test. We should not have seen this skate.””
— Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski
That was U.S. Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski’s icy response after watching embattled Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s short program on Tuesday.
Lipinski and fellow former U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir have been covering the figure skating competitions for NBC at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games. And the pair have generally drawn on their own Olympic experiences while giving colorful commentary about the other skaters’ performances.
But the chatty announcers were uncharacteristically quiet while Valieva, 15, skated on Tuesday. The teen phenom is at the center of the biggest doping controversy at the Beijing Olympics. The gold medal favorite in the women’s singles event tested positive for a banned heart substance in December, which recently came to light after she had already helped the Russian Olympic Committee team win gold in the team figure skating event at Beijing.
Lipinski and Weir have skated a thin line between sharing empathy for the pressure that the young skater is under, along with disappointment that the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport has allowed her to compete while her case is reviewed.
They kept mum during Valieva’s short program on Tuesday, but had this to say afterward:
Weir: “All I feel like I can say is, that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics.”
Lipinski, who was 15 years old, herself, when she became the youngest figure skater to win an Olympic gold medal in the women’s singles event during the 1998 Nagano Olympics, had this to say: “And for all of the other Olympic athletes skating here, I feel I need to say again that, she had a positive test. We should not have seen this skate.”
“We are so sorry it’s overshadowing your Olympics,” Weir added.
The pair had previously given glowing commentary to the young athlete, who has been called one of the greatest figure skaters of all time. She made history a week ago by becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump at an Olympics.
“I don’t know how many times over the past year I’ve said that [Valieva] is the best figure skater I have ever seen,” Lipinski said on Tuesday. “And just saying that now not only makes me confused, but it makes me angry — and again, disoriented — by everything that I thought that I knew.”
Their silence during Valieva’s performance spoke volumes to viewers who caught NBC’s primetime broadcast of the women’s short program on Tuesday night, Eastern Time. (The competition had previously aired live on USA early Tuesday morning, Eastern.) And their silent protest, followed by their remarks on the scandal, led their names to trend on Twitter through Wednesday morning.
“Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir going completely silent through Kamila Valieva’s short program was a major flex,” tweeted one viewer. “No announcing from anyone on the NBC panel.”
“Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir should be awarded gold medals for their commentary and especially their LACK of commentary last night,” tweeted another. “That was a master class!”
The pair also discussed the strict testing regimen they had followed while they were competing at the Olympic level, such as providing a detailed schedule of where they would be — by the hour — so that they were available for random drug testing. Lipinski said that she had been afraid to eat poppy seed bagels (presumably to avoid any false positive opioid tests.) And Lipinski recalled how her mother would have to clear what cold medicines she was allowed to take any time that she was sick.
As Weir told NBC’s Mike Tirico in another broadcast, “It doesn’t matter how old you are, or the timing on when the test results come in — you have to be responsible for what happens to your body.”
Lipinski emphasized in the same interview that she is well aware that Valieva is a minor, and how she sympathizes with the pressure the teen is under. “I know firsthand what it’s like just competing at an Olympic Games at 15 years old. I remember the overwhelming feelings and pressure that I felt, and for a young person that’s a lot to deal with,” she said. “But with that being said, clean sport is the only thing that matters at an Olympic Games. And what we love about an Olympic Games is that we get to marvel at humans pushing athletic limits and doing the impossible — but with one caveat: to do it fairly and cleanly.
Lipinski’s words struck a chord with many audience members. “Daily reminder: Tara Lipinski won Olympic gold at 15 without cheating,” tweeted one viewer. “She knows exactly what she’s talking about.”
As for his opinion on Valieva being allowed to skate, Weir had strong words. “I have to condemn this decision with every ounce of my soul,” he said. “The Olympics has to be clean, or it’s not fair. If you won’t play fair, then you can’t play. “
He added: “This is a slap in the face to the Olympic Games, to our sport, and to every athlete that’s ever competed at the Olympics — clean.”
They’re not the only figure skaters expressing dismay that Valieva is still allowed to take the ice at Beijing. Adam Rippon was the American bronze medalist at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. He is now coaching U.S. figure skater Mariah Bell, who is competing against Valieva in Beijing.
“It’s all just so unfair,” he said. “And now it’s also so unfair to all of these ladies, because their whole Olympic experience is now wrapped up in the controversy because a country doesn’t want to play by the damn rules.”
And U.S. gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, the 1992 Olympic figure skating champion, told the “Today” show that she was “shocked” Valieva wasn’t suspended.
“The case is ongoing, but it’s just not within the Olympic ideals,” she said. “As an athlete, you take the Olympic oath, and it’s all about coming together to compete and fair play, without doping … I took that oath to heart for sure and you want to see that even playing field for everyone out there. And right now, it’s not, and it’s not right.”
American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was banned from competing at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, has also questioned why Valieva is still allowed to compete.
Others, including German figure-skating legend Katarina Witt, say that Valieva is the victim here, and the coaches and adults around her should have known better. Indeed, the court’s favorable decision for her comes in part because she is a minor, known as a “protected person,” and so is subject to different rules from an adult athlete.
“These days have been very difficult for me,” Valieva told Russian state broadcaster Channel One on Monday. “I’m happy but I’m tired emotionally.”
Valieva is in first place as the women head into the free skate portion of the single’s competition on Thursday. And if she lands among the top three finishers, the International Olympic Committee said that it will not hold a medal ceremony for the winners. The medals will be awarded after Valieva’s doping case is concluded, which could take months. Here’s where and how to watch the figure skating final.