YANQING, China—Mikaela Shiffrin skidded out of the the third of her five races at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday, the alpine combined, meaning the U.S. skiing superstar won’t win an individual medal at these Games.
Shiffrin passed the fifth gate—where she had skied out in the first two races at these Olympics, then had actual nightmares about it as she slept—but faltered a few gates later.
BEIJING—The Winter Olympics were plunged into drama on Friday over a Russian doping case that has rocked the marquee figure skating events here and pitted Russia—already under sanction over state-sponsored doping—against international sports organizations in a court battle that could drag on several more days.
The International Testing Agency, which oversees Olympic drug-testing, ended days of speculation on Friday when it said that Kamila Valieva, a teenage Russian star and jumping phenom, had a positive result for a banned substance in late December.
The test sets up a familiar battle that pits Russia against much of the rest of the global sports community over doping violations. Russia is already banned from international sports competition for its epic state-sponsored doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The new case puts one of skating’s most supremely talented athletes, the 15-year-old Valieva, at the center of a maelstrom—just after she had won one gold medal and just before she is heavily favored to win another by performing as many as three quadruple jumps in a single program.
It leaves open the question of who won the coveted team title: the Russian Olympic Committee, or perhaps second-place-finisher the United States. And it ensures that the run-up to the women’s singles competition next week—perhaps the most high-profile event of the Games—will be engulfed in legal action.
The drama began not at the Beijing Olympics, but at a domestic competition in Russia at the end of 2021.
A testing sample collected by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency at the Russian Figure Skating Championships in St. Petersburg in late December was returned on Feb. 8 showing that Valieva had tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart drug, the ITA said.
The drug is typically used to treat coronary heart disease and is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency as the drug can also increase blood flow, which is likely related to increased cardiac output.
The result arrived one day after the 15-year-old clinched victory for the ROC in the figure skating team event on Monday, in which she also became the first female skater to land a quadruple jump at the Olympic Games in a moment that awed fans around the world.
Valieva was briefly suspended by the Russian anti-doping agency, and didn’t practice the next day, before the agency overturned the suspension. She is due to compete again as gold-medal favorite in the women’s singles event Feb. 15.
But her return is far from assured. The International Olympic Committee, the World Anti-Doping Agency and International Skating Union indicated Friday they would appeal the Russian agency’s decision.
Now it will fall to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to determine whether Valieva can compete in the women’s event and whether the ROC will lose the prestigious team title.
The case raises questions about the arrival of the test results at the worst possible moment for all competitors in one of the Olympics’ most popular and high-profile sports. It also comes at a time of heightened geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West, as international sports organizations face renewed questions over the robustness of Russia’s anti-doping stance, and concerns grow around the welfare of child athletes, in particular.
Technically, Russia isn’t even at the Olympics. The international ban means its athletes compete not under the Russian name and flag, but that of the Russian Olympic Committee. Russian officials have previously called the doping suspension politically motivated. And international sports bodies have been accused of being timid in the face of repeated rule violations.
The ROC on Friday said it would take “comprehensive measures” to protect the team and keep its gold medal in the figure skating competition. It also suggested a possible conspiracy against the Russian team, questioning the timing of the test result’s arrival—the day after their team won gold in Beijing—and that it took some 45 days to analyze it.
“It’s very likely that someone held this probe until the end of the team figure skating tournament,” said Stanislav Pozdnyakov, the ROC president. The ITA declined to comment.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, offered its “absolutely unlimited” support to Valieva. On Friday, she skated through an official practice session with multiple falls in a run-through of her free program, then hid her face inside a hooded sweatshirt while passing reporters on the way out.
“We say to Kamila: ‘Kamila, don’t hide your face, you are a Russian woman, walk proudly everywhere and, most importantly, speak up and defeat everyone,” presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, cited by state newswire TASS.
The matter is no less weighty to officials in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“For us, this is less about medals and more about protecting the sanctity of fair and clean sport and holding those accountable that don’t uphold the Olympic values,” said Kate Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. anti-doping agency, also criticized the delay in getting Valieva’s result.
“It’s a catastrophic failure of the system,” he said. “It’s an awful set of facts that easily could have been prevented.”
The accredited Swedish laboratory that handled Valieva’s Dec. 25 test said it couldn’t comment on a pending case.
And the IOC insisted that it had acted appropriately with regards to ROC and all its competitors.
“We don’t take mass actions against groups of people but against individuals,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters Friday. “We wouldn’t try a whole class of people and chuck them out.”
“The central principle of the IOC is that we have to be politically neutral,” he said. “We don’t bow to any side in these cases.”
Valieva’s case highlights a structural problem with doping in Russia, dating back to Soviet times, said Lukas Aubin, a researcher at Paris-Nanterre University who focuses on Russian sports and politics.
“The problem is with the structure of the sporting system in Russia where people at the top are asking for better results and those underneath have to deliver, like a pyramid,” Aubin said. “They are fighting against themselves and against their history.”
Trimetazidine, the drug at the center of the Valieva case, was unlikely to have a therapeutic use for a young Olympian, said Aaron Baggish, director of the cardiovascular performance program at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It is a metabolic modulator thought to increase blood flow to the heart and perhaps improve metabolic efficiency in heart muscle cells,” he said, adding that he believed use as a performance enhancing drug “is uncommon but it is out there.”
The Russian Figure Skating Federation said Friday that it “has no doubts about [Valieva’s] honesty and purity.”
The case was further complicated by Valieva’s age. Being 15, she counts as a “Protected Person” under the World Anti-Doping Code, which the ITA said had delayed the public disclosure. But with speculation in the media running rampant and several outlets naming Valieva, the organization said it decided to publish more information on the situation.
Valieva, in her first season of being old enough to compete at the senior level, has also emerged as the leader of a pack of talented Russian skaters capable of sweeping the podium by unleashing a slew of exceptionally difficult jumps. She set new highest scores for the women and broke them herself several times during the current season.
That group, almost all of whom are coached by Eteri Tutberidze of Moscow, have achieved extraordinary success through their technical prowess. But their slight frames and short competitive careers have also drawn scrutiny of the physical and mental toll on athletes who have often retired before they are 18.