A little more than a week ago, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva was being celebrated as one of the greatest figure skaters of all time after becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics during the free-skate portion of the figure-skating team event in Beijing. In fact, she landed two quads (and a triple axel!) during her history-making skate, which helped the Russian Olympic Committee team win the event.
But with the women’s singles skating competition officially underway on Tuesday, Valieva has found herself at the center of the biggest doping scandal at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games after it was revealed that she had tested positive for the heart drug trimetazidine in December, which didn’t come to light until last week.
While the international Court of Arbitration for Sport, an independent institution that settles sports-related legal disputes, ruled that Valieva could still compete on Tuesday (when she took first place in the short program) and Thursday while her case is being reviewed, the teen phenom is at the center of a tweetstorm.
Some, including American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who was banned from competing at the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, are questioning why she’s 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.”
Here’s what you need to know about Valieva and the heart medication drug trimetazidine that’s at the center of this controversy.
Her nickname is ‘Miss Perfect’
And for good reason: At the tender age of 15, Kamila Valieva has already set nine world records. She got an early start: Valieva began skating at age 3, telling her mother that she wanted to be an Olympic champion. Her feats include a record 90.45 during the short program at the European Championships in January — that was the first time a female figure skater passed the 90-point mark under the current scoring system.
Prior to the Olympics, she won the Russian and European Championships, and she has been favored to win the gold medal in the women’s individual figure skating competition at the Beijing Olympics. Last week, she was a member of the Russian Olympic Committee squad that won the team event. And she made history by becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump in Olympic competition, aka turning four revolutions in the air, which was long considered nearly impossible for female figure skaters.
She also loves her dog, Leo — a gift for winning the Junior Grand Prix in 2019 in Turin, Italy. The New York Times reported that she told Russian ballet magazine La Personne that she wants to study photography and modern dance, as well as travel the world, visit theaters and museums, and ride a motorcycle. But now she has to focus on “only figure skating and studying at school.”
The drug she tested positive for is a heart medication that may improve endurance
Trimetazidine is described as a metabolic agent that helps prevent angina attacks (feeling pain, pressure or squeezing in the chest) and symptoms of vertigo (aka the sensation that the world is spinning around you). But it can also increase blood-flow efficiency and improve endurance, and it is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list as a hormone and metabolic modulator.
A urine sample that she submitted at the Dec. 25, 2021, Russian national championship tested positive for the drug. But for some reason, the result was not given to Russian officials or Valieva herself until Feb. 7 — the day that she and her team won the gold in the team figure skating event.
Lawyers for Valieva suggested Monday that trimetazidine somehow accidentally entered her because it’s a medication that her grandfather takes. “Her argument was this contamination which happened with a product her grandfather was taking,” IOC member Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer who prosecuted previous Russian doping cases, told reporters.
But the Associated Press reported on Wednesday that she also listed two legal substances used to improve heart function — L-carnitine and Hypoxen — on an anti-doping control form she filled out before her drug case at the Olympics. And a brief filed by the World Anti-Doping Agency in the Valieva case states that although both of these medications are legal, the fact that she was taking them undermines the argument that trimetazidine might have entered her system by accident.
Combining those with 2.1 nanograms of trimetazidine, the drug found in Valieva’s system after a Dec. 25 test, is “an indication that something more serious is going on,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said.
In 2014, three-time Olympic swimming champion Sun Yang served a three-month ban for using trimetazidine. And Russian bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva was disqualified from the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics after she also tested positive for the drug.
It should be noted that Russian athletes are competing at these Games under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee, or ROC, after Russia received a two-year ban from the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019 as punishment for a state-sponsored doping operation dating back to the 2014 Sochi Games that Russia hosted.
Her coach is a controversial figure
Valieva has been training with former pairs skater-turned-Russian figure-skating coach Eteri Tutberidze since she was 12. Tutberidze is a polarizing figure. She produces figure-skating champions (she coached the gold and silver medalists at the 2018 Winter Games), and three of her students (including Anna Scherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, both 17, as well as Valieva) are landing quadruple jumps in competitions, earning the nickname “the Quad Squad.”
But some coaches have also called out her strict methods that have seen some of her former athletes forced to retire in their late teens due to injury. They include Yulia Lipnitskaya, who was 15 when she helped lead the Russian figure-skating team to take gold at Sochi 2014, but who retired at 19 after undergoing treatment for an eating disorder. This has been referred to as the “Eteri expiration date” or the “Tutberidze expiration date.”
Tutberidze said that there are “many questions and very few answers” about Valieva’s positive test result, but “we are absolutely confident that Kamila is innocent and clean.”
Even if she wins, she won’t leave Beijing with a medal
Valieva is allowed to compete on Tuesday and Thursday while her case is reviewed. But even if she wins the individual competition, she won’t leave Beijing with a medal. The IOC said Monday it will not hold a medal ceremony if she is among the top three. If that happens, medals will not be awarded until after Valieva’s doping case is concluded, which could take months.
The medals in the team event have also been withheld, with the possibility that the winning Russian team could have their title stripped away. If that happens, the U.S. team, which won silver, would be elevated to gold; Japan would rise to silver from bronze; and fourth-place Canada would take the bronze.