The Olympics are undeniably a spectacle. Professional athletes, at the top of their respective fields, spend their lives preparing for a flash of potential glory, and we get to watch them achieve (or tragically miss) those milestones on prime-time television. Yet hard work, inspiration, teamwork, love of sport—the values embodied by the Games, according to countless commercials paid for by major corporations—are, in practice, secondary to the show. The Olympics are a product, and this year, the fact was impossible to ignore.
At the Winter Games in Beijing, the women’s figure skating competition became mired in scandal when gold medal-favorite Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old virtuoso who managed to land multiple quadruple jumps, or quads—four rotations in the air—during her skate for the team competition, tested positive for a banned drug said to be performance-enhancing. The team skate medal ceremony was canceled, and an investigation pursued. What’s odd is that results came from testing conducted in Sweden on a sample Valieva submitted in December, since the anti-doping laboratory in Valieva’s native Russia isn’t permitted to analyze blood samples, following the 2014 Olympic doping scandal. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) didn’t flag Valieva’s sample as a priority to the Swedish lab, which meant that the results weren’t available until the Winter Olympics were underway, and Valieva was already competing.
But Valieva, a class above her competitors and initially all but guaranteed to take home gold in the solo competition, was allowed to continue participating in the women’s individual event. The only stipulation: If she placed in the top three for the women’s individual competition, the medal ceremony would be canceled for all competitors pending a deeper investigation. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) claimed that such allowances were made to protect Valieva from “irreparable harm”—given that she had already trained for most of her 15 years for this moment. Surely, shouldn’t her coaches and guardians be held responsible for any doping, and not the minor?
Commenters from within and outside of the figure skating world, from former Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon to sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, strongly disagreed. Whether Valieva knowingly doped or not, they said, competing with a positive test would be unfair to all the clean athletes who have worked just as hard for their Olympic moment. Richardson, a Black woman, lost her spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after her own test came back positive for THC—a banned substance that nevertheless has little performance-enhancing effect.
The aforementioned regulating bodies are different; the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), the body of athletes unassociated with the doping scandal who are allowed to participate in the Olympics even after Russia’s ban, didn’t seem to care that Valieva had a positive test for an advantage-conferring drug while USA Track & Field (USATF) adhered to outdated rules in Richardson’s case. But critics do have a point about double standards and the inherently exclusionary and unhealthy athletic culture fostered in the figure skating world and by global sports organizations more generally. Valieva, who shockingly finished fourth in the individual competition at the Games after failing jumps several times during her free skate, was not only a victim of her team and Russian doping protocol, but the product of a sport in which accommodations are constantly made to maintain an illusion of grace and virtuosity in a historically lily-white field.
When you see Valieva perform her quads, it seems almost too good to be true. It’s like she’s a leaf swiveling in the air, carried only by a gust of wind. She lands with apparent ease—long lines and balletic flexibility, ready to move directly and seamlessly into the next set of skills. The general wisdom is that to complete four rotations in the air, one has to be very light and thin—that’s just how the physics work. Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze—known for producing champion teen figure skaters with careers prematurely ended by injury in some cases—is rumored to put her athletes on extreme diets to stave off the effects of puberty, which can make performing quads much harder. (Tutberidze has denied putting her athletes on these diets.) It doesn’t follow, however, that a skill as demanding as a quadruple jump could be safely and consistently completed by an in all likelihood undernourished teenager. The stick-thin Valieva was found to have a combination of drugs in her system that can enhance endurance and temper heavy stress to the heart; suddenly, the puzzle fit.
For years, the only other female figure skater who had attempted quads in competition was Frenchwoman Surya Bonaly, a three-time World medalist in the ’90s. Bonaly, a Black woman with a robust athletic build, was discouraged by a referee during the 1992 Olympics in France from performing her signature backflip during a practice session, since he believed it could intimidate other skaters. Sports journalists have since discussed Bonaly as a figure skating great challenged by racism from officials in the sport who judged not only on the basis of skills, but also aesthetics, and saw the thinner, usually white bodies of Bonaly’s competitors as more elegant and artistic.
Other sports have had to reckon with harmful body standards. After middle distance runner Mary Cain revealed the abuse she suffered under former Nike running coach Alberto Salazar as her once promising career went suddenly downhill, the running world more readily began to accept that dieting impedes athletes’ development in the long term and rarely helps it in the short term. (Salazar, who was barred from the sport for life last year, has denied Cain’s claims.)
The figure skating world only has to look back to Bonaly’s success with highly difficult skills to see that there is a path toward clean and healthy competition, even in a sport as physically demanding (and on such a harsh surface) as figure skating. Surely, the physics equation that stipulates extremely thin bodies can more reliably land high-difficulty skills like the quad does not account for body composition, specifically the role that muscle plays in supporting speed, acceleration, and high-impact shock absorption in athletes. Increasingly, studies in sports science indicate that weight management should not involve heavy restriction and that such tactics should especially be avoided with young, growing athletes since they could introduce disordered eating behaviors that cause lifelong harm.
But neither the Olympics nor the sports committees involved in keeping Valieva in competition appear to be interested in the quality of the sport and health of the athletes as much as they are invested in spectacle. If it seems too good to be true, it’s even better for ratings. The irreparable harm to Valieva’s career is not necessarily a missed podium in this Olympics, but a lack of longevity; chances are, as a pupil of Tutberidze’s low-calorie school of figure skating, she won’t get her chance at redemption.
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