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After Russian figure skater’s positive drug test, officials promise expedited hearing

ROC figure skater Kamila Valieva was cleared to compete in the women’s figure skating competition in Beijing, despite failing a drug test in December 2021. (Video: Hadley Green, Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
7 min

BEIJING — An expedited hearing will determine whether Russian Olympic Committee figure skater Kamila Valieva will be allowed to compete in the women’s individual competition at the Beijing Olympics, the International Testing Agency said in a statement Friday. Valieva tested positive for a banned substance in December and was briefly suspended from competition until a Russian anti-doping committee lifted that suspension.

The International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency appealed the lifting of the suspension, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport will make a decision that determines whether Valieva, 15, can continue to compete here. She participated in the team event earlier in these Games, leading the ROC team to a gold medal that has yet to be presented because of the case’s unresolved status. The United States won silver and Japan bronze in the team competition.

According to the ITA’s statement, Valieva’s sample in question was collected on Dec. 25, 2021, during the Russian national championships. On Tuesday, the day after the Russians won the figure skating team event, a Swedish lab reported that the sample contained the prohibited substance trimetazidine.

According to the ITA’s statement, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency provisionally suspended Valieva, a decision she challenged the next day. That evening, a RUSADA disciplinary committee lifted the suspension. The reasoning for that decision “will be issued shortly to all concerned parties,” the ITA’s statement said. The ITA will lead the appeal, the statement said.

While Valieva’s future participation in these Games won’t be resolved until that hearing, the ITA’s statement brought some clarity to a case that had been shrouded for several days. Three days after apparently capturing gold, the winning ROC team has yet to receive its medals. The U.S. figure skating team finished behind the Russians in the team competition, leaving open the possibility that the Americans would be elevated to the gold if the Russian team is disqualified. Karen Chen, a member of the U.S. team that finished second, said after Friday morning’s practice that she and her teammates were told Tuesday’s medal ceremony was postponed just after they had gotten ready and were about to head to the medal plaza.

She said officials did not give the skaters any details about the delay, and “it was definitely disappointing” not to have that celebratory moment. Chen said she is focusing on the women’s individual event, scheduled to begin Tuesday, adding: “I trust that this decision will be made fairly by those in charge.”

The Russian Olympic Committee confirmed Valieva’s positive doping test from a sample collected Dec. 25, but added that she has tested negative before and after that date.

“The Russian Olympic Committee is taking exhaustive measures to protect the rights and interests of the ROC Team and to preserve the honestly won Olympic gold medal,” the committee said in a statement.

Valieva, the 2022 European champion and Russian national champion, entered these Olympics as the favorite in the women’s individual competition. In leading the Russian team to gold in the team event, finishing first in both segments she entered, Valieva became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, attempting three and landing two.

The presence of Russian athletes at the Olympics has been a source of tension since the exposure of a state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games. The country’s flag and national anthem have not been present at the past three Games, but large delegations of Russian athletes have been a presence at all of them — first as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” in PyeongChang and under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee in Tokyo and here.

Travis Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said in an interview Thursday the lack of transparency surrounding Valieva’s situation suggested either incompetence or a possible coverup by international governing bodies.

It is not clear why the result from a sample taken in December was not reported until after the Olympics began this month. Tygart said the lengthy delay is “unacceptable,” especially considering “everyone knows she’s the star of the Games and the head of the Russian team.”

Barry Svrluga: Who could have seen another Russian doping issue coming? Everyone but the IOC.

Valieva is under the age of 16 and therefore considered a “protected person” under the World Anti-Doping Code, so cases involving her are not subject to mandatory public disclosure, the ITA said in its statement. Disclosure “must be proportionate to the facts and circumstances of the case,” the organization’s statement said, and the ITA shared information about Valieva’s positive test because it “acknowledges the necessity for official information due to heightened public interest.”

Trimetazidine has been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency since 2014, Tygart said. TMZ, as it’s also known, is a heart drug designed for mostly older people who have a condition called angina that causes severe chest pain because of inadequate blood flow to the heart. The drug has never been approved for use in the United States. Several medical experts said it probably has more risk than benefit.

While its ability to enhance performance is unclear — there is scant medical literature demonstrating its effect in sports — some elite athletes have turned to it for a slight edge. The drug is supposed to make the heart more efficient by relying less on fatty acids and more on glucose, which requires less oxygen.

The drug in theory could be performance enhancing for endurance athletes who have to generate high cardiac output, such as cyclists, rowers and long-distance runners, but would be unlikely to have a direct impact on a figure skater’s performance, where there is less demand on her heart, said Aaron Baggish, director of the Cardiovascular Performance Program at Massachusetts General Hospital.

There is virtually no reason a healthy teenager, let alone any Olympic athlete, would be given a legitimate prescription for TMZ, Baggish said. In situations in which an athlete may need to take a drug on the banned substance list, she would need to receive a therapeutic use exemption for the drug and her physician would have to make the case there are no suitable alternatives, Baggish added, noting that in the case of TMZ there are many superior drugs that treat the same condition.

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The drug could, in theory, give an athlete such as Valieva an edge by allowing her to train for longer periods of time in a sport in which medals are won by razor-thin margins, said Robby Sikka, a sports medicine physician and anesthesiologist who works with NFL and NBA teams. It also could have a psychological benefit, Sikka said, if someone in Valieva’s orbit told her it could help her performance or enable her to train even harder, and it may be able to help athletes recover faster.

“This is more likely that it impacted her training, possibly gave her longer endurance, and it’s possible those sessions were ones where she was able to have even added psychological benefit in a sport that’s dominated by psychological benefits,” said Sikka, who questioned whether a 15-year-old athlete under tight control took the drug knowingly. “If it made her more confident to do a jump that she did, the drug’s effect is not inconsequential to her performance.”

As another day of competition nears, Valieva, who continued to practice Friday morning, faces an uncertain future. Either way, Tygart said, she already has lost.

“What I think is really unfortunate is that you have a 15-year-old athlete who’s just getting chewed up in the process,” Tygart said.

Harlan Krumholz, a cardiologist and scientist at Yale University and Yale New Haven Hospital, agreed.

“If this turns out to be true, what a tragedy that someone who is so gifted, working so hard and performing at such a high level would be tainted by a medication where it’s not clear that it makes any difference,” Krumholz said. “It’s hard to believe at the margin it’s making that much difference. She may not have even known she was given this medication.”

Abutaleb reported from Washington, and Garcia-Roberts reported from Los Angeles. Isabelle Khurshudyan contributed to this report from Kyiv.

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