Despite testing positive for trimetazidine, a performance-enhancing heart medication banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva has been cleared to further compete at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
The 15-year-old will compete beginning Tuesday in the women’s individual event, where she is considered the gold-medal favorite. The IOC, however, has already announced that there will be no medal ceremony should Valieva win a medal.
A three-person panel on the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Monday upheld a move by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency to lift a provisional suspension that had barred Valieva from competing. CAS stressed that it reached its decision on procedural fairness grounds and to avert “irreparable harm.” Along those lines, CAS noted it has not evaluated the merits of the case. Future proceedings, the panel cautioned, will review the merits and could lead to a retroactive disqualification.
Valieva, 15, took a drug test on Dec. 25 at the Russian nationals in St. Petersburg. For reasons that remain unsettled, results from the sample, which were examined by a WADA-approved Swedish lab, were not revealed until Feb. 8. In the 45 days in between, Valieva passed tests and helped the Russian Olympic Committee—Russia is not allowed to compete as a country due to previous doping scandals—win a gold in the team figure skating event.
RUSADA had imposed a provisional suspension on Feb. 8 upon learning of the test. After review by officials in Moscow, the agency lifted the suspension on Feb. 9.
In reaching its decision, CAS underscored that Valieva is a “protected person” under WADA’s code and thus warrants friendlier treatment. The code defines such a person as an athlete “who at the time of the anti-doping rule violation: (i) has not reached the age of sixteen (16) years; (ii) has not reached the age of eighteen (18) years and is not included in any Registered Testing Pool and has never competed in any International Event in an open category; or (iii) for reasons other than age has been determined to lack legal capacity under applicable national legislation.”
CAS emphasized that neither the rules of RUSADA or WADA contemplate provisional suspensions imposed on protected persons. Likewise, it argued that Valieva could suffer “irreparable harm” if denied a chance to compete and later cleared. Irreparable harm means a type of harm that can’t later be remedied, even by monetary damages. Here, if Valieva can’t compete at the 2022 Olympics, she will never be able to compete in those Olympics again.
Further, CAS noted that Valieva is not responsible for the “serious issues of untimely notification,” and the delay in that notification—made “in the middle” of the Olympics—“impinged” on her ability to contest the finding.
Although named a “court,” CAS is not technically a court or tribunal. CAS is an arbitrational body that oversees legal challenges connected to the Olympics and international sporting contests. Its arbitrators are from countries around the world. The three that ruled on Valieva were from Italy, Slovenia and the United States.
In a sharp rebuke of the Valieva decision, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland worried “by the message this decision sends.” She feared that “the right” of athletes “to know they are competing on a level playing field” has been “denied.”
The Valieva decision is sure to incite further debate in the days and weeks ahead. While Valieva might not be blameworthy, it’s debatable whether she should be treated more favorably on account of her youth. She is competing as an Olympian, alongside athletes of various ages. The Olympics do not provide competitive advantages to younger athletes or older athletes. If countries believe that younger athletes are less likely to be punished for cheating, it would create incentives to exploit that circumstance.
Valieva is trained by Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze, who, though very successful, has been criticized for her methods and techniques. Tutberidze’s detractors insist she relies on abusive schemes, such as pressuring injured and ill skaters to compete, that are especially inappropriate for young skaters.