If Sha'Carri Richardson Couldn't Run, Why Can Kamila Valieva Skate?

Figure skater Valieva is allowed to compete in Beijing despite a positive drug test — meanwhile, Richardson was banned from the Summer Olympics after she tested positive for cannabis.

Photo: Getty Images

Kamila Valieva being the first female to land a quad jump at the Olympics last week isn't the only buzz surrounding the young figure skater. In fact, it's no longer even trending, since the newest controversy surrounding the 15-year-old Russian calls her eligibility into question.

Here's the drama: Valieva received a positive drug test in the midst of the Winter Olympics in Beijing — and that was after she won gold. At the moment, she's still able to compete in the Games, though she won't be able to receive a medal until the whole situation is sorted out by the sports governing bodies.

The whole thing is, understandably, setting off a tidal wave of reactions from fans and athletes alike — including from U.S. track star Sha'Carri Richardson, who herself was barred from competing at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for cannabis (which, despite being made legal in many American states now, is still regarded as a form of doping by the International Olympic Committee [IOC] in the Olympics).

"Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines?" tweeted Richardson. My mother died and I can't run and was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is I'm a black young lady." She continued in subsequent tweets. "Failed in December and the world just now know however my resulted was posted within a week and my name & talent was slaughtered to the people," she wrote, followed by "Not one BLACK athlete has been about to compete with a case going on, I don't care what they say!!!"

The IOC responded to Richardson's tweets during a press briefing on Wednesday. "Obviously every single case is very different," stated spokesperson Mark Adams. "This one hasn't even reached the end of its case yet. But in terms of miss Richardson's case, she tested positive on the 19th of June quite a way ahead of the Games. The results came in early order for USADA to deal with the case on time before the Games. Miss Richardson accepted a one month period of ineligibility which began on June 28th so I would suggest there wasn't a great deal of similarity between the two cases."

Should Valieva be allowed to compete? And was Richardson's situation comparable? There's a lot to unpack; let's start at the beginning.

On Christmas day in 2021, Valieva won the Russian Figure Skating Championships (by the largest women's margin in the history of the event), and was tested that same day by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RADA). The results of that test weren't available prior to the competition starting in Beijing, so Valieva competed last Monday, February 7 (when she landed the quad jump) in the team event, helping the Russian Olympic Committee to win gold. A few days later, the results of Valieva's Christmas day test came back positive for a banned heart drug, trimetazidine, and she was provisionally suspended by the RADA. But then, RADA's disciplinary committee challenged and lifted the ban, according to the Associated Press.

In response, the IOC, the International Skating Union (ISU), and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) all challenged the lifting of the suspension. The decision then moved to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an independent and international body that settles legal disputes in sports, according to the AP. Their decision: Valieva can compete, but there will be no medal ceremony for the team event or the women's event if Valieva medals (finishes in the top three), until her case is resolved, according to the New York Times. Why? The CAS said suspension from the Games would cause the skater "irreparable harm," according to footage from a press conference tweeted by the AP.

Needless to say, the situation has sparked lots of anger and outrage from other athletes, commentators, and both current and past Olympians.

"Clean sport is the only thing that matters at an Olympic games," said Tara Lipinsky, NBC Olympics figure skating analyst and Olympic gold medalist, on NBC Sports. "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."

Her co-analyst and two-time Olympic medalist, Johnny Weir agreed. "The Olympics has to be clean or it's not fair. If you won't play fair then you can't play," he said, according to NBC Sports. "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."

To make a statement, during Valieva's short program on February 16, Lipinsky and Weir skipped commentating altogether. Forgoing their usual banter, they stayed quiet during her performance. Afterward, Weir said: "All I feel like I can say is, that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics."

"She had a positive test. We should not have seen this skate," added Lipinsky.

Retired South Korean figure skater and Olympic gold medalist Yuna Kim also took to her Instagram, writing: "Athlete who violates doping cannot compete in the game. This principle must be observed without exception. All players' efforts and dreams are equally precious."

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has weighed in as well. "We are disappointed by the message this decision sends," said USOPC CEO in a statement posted to Twitter. "It is the collective responsibility of the entire Olympic community to protect the integrity of sport and to hold our athletes, coaches and all involved to the highest of standards."

Of course, this isn't the first time Russia has been punished for doping in the Olympics; the country is technically banned from the Games and other global sports competitions as a result of doping scandals during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, but through a sort of loophole, Russian athletes have been allowed to compete under the name "Russian Olympic Committee," according to the New York Times.

The drug Valieva tested positively for trimetazidine, also known as TMZ, is used to treat heart-related conditions and works by increasing blood flow to the heart and limiting rapid swings in blood pressure, according to Reuters. (It's not approved for any use in the U.S.) Theoretically, if you're performing a "highly exertional sport, where you're using a lot of energy and you're putting your heart under significant stress, it certainly could help your heart function better," Kelly Johnson-Arbor, M.D., a medical toxicology physician at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, told Reuters.

Trimetazidine is on the WADA list of prohibited substances. So is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a compound found in cannabis, and the drug that Richardson tested positively for before the
Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2021. And while TMZ may be able to boost performance, THC does not appear to do so; a 2018 review of cannabis research published in The Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine found that there's no direct evidence that cannabis had performance-enhancing effects in athletes.

Twitter, of course, has thoughts on the debate — and, generally, has Richardson's back. "I don't remember anyone considering the "irreparable harm" of suspending Sha'Carri Richardson for smoking pot to cope with her mother's death," tweeted Clayton Collier, a sports reporter in Memphis, Tennessee.

Other Twitter users pointed out that Valieva is a minor — and it's certainly possible that she could be influenced by adults who are making decisions on her behalf; however, junior athletes are still subject to the same WADA list of prohibited substances, and those substances can still affect performance in minors.

Regardless, the CAS's decision stands for now. Valieva took to the ice on Tuesday, February 15, and skated her short program, which included a triple flip, a triple axel, and a triple flip/triple toe loop combination. The minor was visibly in tears as she finished, and despite a small stumble during her opening triple axel, Valieva's performance took first place.

Valieva's performance in the women's single event which took place yesterday did not land her in the top three, and so the medal ceremony is slated to take place today as initially planned. It's still unclear if Valieva's results at the Games will be voided or if she'll be allowed to keep the golds she's stacked up.

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