Could doping spell the end for Russian skating prodigy Kamila Valieva?

Could doping spell the end for Russian skating prodigy Kamila Valieva?

Kamila Valieva performing during the 2022 Winter Olympics in the Women Single Skating Short Program during the Figure Skating Team Event.

At 15, Russian figure skating prodigy Kamila Valieva was a top contender for Olympic gold.
Valieva is suspected of failing a doping test and could see her Olympics dreams dashed.
Fans point to Russia’s skating culture and coach Eteri Tutberidze as the more likely villains. 

Days after figure skater Kamila Valieva led Russia to team gold with a history-making performance, the 15-year-old is now at the center of the latest firestorm involving doping and Russia’s quest for Olympic medals at all costs. 

Two days after Valieva landed two two quadruple jumps and skated near-perfect programs in Beijing, the medal ceremony was abruptly delayed. RBC, a Russian newspaper, reported Valieva had tested positive for traces of the heart medication trimetazidine, citing a source from the Russian Figure Skating Federation. (The drug, which is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, sends more blood and oxygen to the muscles and can improve athletes’ endurance.) 

At the daily Beijing 2022 press briefing on Thursday, Mark Adams, a spokesman for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said the organization could not yet comment on the situation or offer an update.

“It depends on the legal process,” he said. “Everybody is working as quickly as they can.”

In response to a question about why an athlete who had previously tested positive for banned substances was allowed to compete at the Olympics, Adams said, “that depends when that comes to light.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency classifies people under the age of 16 as “protected,” so it’s not clear if Valieva, at 15, can even be identified by name if she had failed a drug test. 

Valieva, seen as a shoo-in for gold, is next scheduled to compete on Feb. 15 in the women’s short program. In Beijing, medal contenders anxiously awaited news about whether she will take the ice. If Valieva is disqualified from further competition, a skater from a country other than Russia has a chance at an Olympic gold medal in the women’s event for the first time in over a decade. 

As fans eagerly awaited clarity on exactly what happened and what the consequences might be, the Skating Lesson, an authoritative figure skating podcast, suggested it was unlikely Valieva, a minor, would have even known she was being given banned substances.

On social media, there was an outpouring of sympathy for Valieva from fans who see Russia’s skating culture – and especially Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze – as the more likely villain. 

—The Skating Lesson (@SkatingLesson) February 9, 2022

 

Russian athletes came into this Olympics already on thin ice, forced to compete under a neutral flag as a punishment for the state-sponsored doping coverup of the 2014 Olympics and subsequent persistent doping violations. The Russian doctor who accompanied the team to Beijing, Phillip Shvetsky, was previously banned for doping violations by his own federation from 2007 to 2010. 

The controversy has also fed longstanding concerns about Tutberidze, Valieva’s coach, whose training methods have been widely criticized for leaving her very young skaters injured and with shortened careers. 

Tutberidze also trained the 2018 Olympic champion, Alina Zagitova and the 2018 Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva – both of whom retired with injuries. 

Kamila Valieva stands with her coach Eteri Tutberidze after performing at the Winter Olympics on February 6, 2022.

Members of the skating community have for years lamented what’s known as the “Eteri expiration date” – when, at around age 17, injury or diminishing results bring the careers of Tutberidze’s athletes to an abrupt end. Competitors have long voiced concerns that Tutberidze treats her athletes as “disposable.” 

“Eteri was smart in her approach: she was first to find a method to teach quad jumps to girls, and the method works, but only until age 17,” Benoit Richaud, the leading choreographer among quad-less competitors, told Insider. “What are skaters supposed to do then?” (Read Insider’s profile of Tutberidze here. Tutberidze did not respond to Insider’s request for comment.)

Valieva, who was born in the Russian city of Kazan, caught Tutberidze’s attention for her soaring jumps and remarkable flexibility and eventually moved to Moscow to train at Tutberidze’s prestigious Sambo 70 skating school in Moscow. Since she won the Junior World Championship in 2020, she has been regarded as the future 2022 Olympic champion. In 2021, she was undefeated, and one of Tutberidze’s only students without a major injury.

Dogged by rumors 

Traditional doping – including steroidal cocktails – is relatively rare among figure skaters since lighter, more aerodynamic skaters are better able to rotate jumps. Figure skaters are often among the youngest athletes competing at the Olympics and they would see little performance benefit from bulking up. 

Kamila Valieva smiles as she looks toward the judges during the Women Single Skating Free Skating Team Event at the 2022 Winter Olympics.

However, Russian figure skaters have tested positive for numerous other banned substances. A Russian skater had to withdraw from a World Championship in 2016 after testing positive for Meldonium, a heart-medication used by athletes to speed up their recoveries after training.

According to the most recently available data published by the World Anti-Doping Agency for the year 2019, the only skater with an adverse result was Russian figure skater Maria Sotskova. She tested positive for a banned diuretic, often used as a masking agent for other substances.

Hormone blockers, such as Leuprolin, have been banned for athletes since 2005. Use of such drugs among Russian female figure skaters has been documented; athletes are sometimes told it’s the only way to preserve their aerodynamic shape, and extend their competitive careers. 

The ‘Eteri Expiration Date’

Valieva arrived in Beijing with much fanfare as part of Russia’s three-member Quad Squad – all three coached by Tutberidze. Along with Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova, both 17, they appeared poised to become the first female skaters to successfully land quadruple jumps at the Olympics. Since quads are so valuable in terms of points – roughly double the points of a triple – the Quad Squad appeared to be leading contenders to sweep the medals.

For years, doping rumors have dogged Tutberidze, whose students are tested more than other athletes as part of a special registered testing pool. In 2019, competitor Anastasia Shabotova cast suspicions on Tutberidze, claiming the key to her athletes stunning success was “the right doping,” in an Instagram Live webchat.

Kamila Valieva in action at the 2022 Winter Olympics on February 7, 2022.

 

Tutberidze has said that the punishing training schedule naturally suppresses her athlete’s development – something that her critics still see as egregious and problematic behavior for a coach of such young athletes. In a widely-watched interview in 2019 with broadcaster Vladimir Pozner, Tutberidze breezily denied the use of drugs to suppress her athlete’s development in puberty. 

In the same interview, she talked about how the “physical demands” made on young athletes “do slow down the process” of physical maturity. 

“When they leave for a vacation, we never know what we will get back, what shape they will be in, and how much more difficult they would be to work with,” she said. 

The adults in the room

The Russian government has generously supported Tutberidze’s school, and assigned a full-time doctor to work with Tutberidze’s students.

Dr. Shvestky had been sanctioned from working with athletes for administering performance enhancing substances to the Russian national rowing team in 2007, but in 2010 his ban was prematurely lifted, and he was assigned to the national figure skating team instead.

Shvetsky administers treatments that help athletes with recovery after strenuous exertions or injuries. He has accompanied Valieva to nearly all her competitions, including the recent European Championships, where her medal is currently under scrutiny by the International Skating Union (ISU).  

He was also supervising the figure skater who tested positive for Meldonium in 2016.

Kamila Valieva (L) with her ROC teammates after winning Gold in the team event at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

The ISU’s medical commission cannot oversee the practice of medicine by physicians in their own country, nor can it ban physicians whose sanctions have been lifted, according to Dr. Jane Moran, who chairs the commission.

Dr. Moran’s medical commission has not directly studied the impacts banned substances have on skaters’ bodies, but studies have shown a number of substances can negatively impact a female athlete’s bone health.

The ISU’s health commission does not comment on athletes’ specific test results, but Dr. Moran expressed  concern for the well-being of athletes who risk long-term health impacts for a marginal benefit in training or competition. 

“It’s just not worth the risk,” she said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

News, Sports, News-freelancer, Skating, Figure Skating, Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Beijing 2022, olympics medals, Doping, Child Abuse, Eating Disorder

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