BEIJING — Figure skating prizes the value of keeping up appearances, smiling for the world while everything’s going to hell.
But the sport can’t smile its way through this crisis. As Russia’s Kamila Valieva resumed competition at the Olympics on Tuesday despite a positive test for a banned drug, some peers broke a longstanding code of decorum and spoke out.
“I think it’s completely unfair to the rest of the competitors,” Chinese American skater Zhu Yi told Yahoo Sports. “It’s the fact that everybody else is clean and she tested positive.”
As Valieva took to the ice for Tuesday night’s short program, where she would qualify first ahead of Thursday night’s free skate, 16-year-old American Alysa Liu glanced over her shoulder, and acknowledged that Valieva’s presence in the event was “a little odd.”
“I just don’t know enough details to have a solid opinion on it,” Liu said. “But pushing that aside, a doping athlete competing against clean athletes obviously isn’t fair.”
Throughout the evening, most skaters carefully danced around the subject. But Liu admitted it had been a topic of conversation among teammates. Several skaters said they’d struggled to escape it on social media. Reporters crowded around first-time Olympians like Mariah Bell to ask not about their performances, or their experiences in Beijing, but about the scandal. Its looming presence over figure skating’s pinnacle, multiple athletes said, was “sad.”
“The whole thing is really sad,” Sweden’s Josefin Taljegard said.
Tuesday night at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium marked one of the more dramatic evenings in the sport’s history, but not for any on-ice heroics. Thirty skaters took the ice, but all eyes in the arena focused on the 15-year-old Valieva, who right at this moment happens to be both the most talented and most controversial female skater in the world.
Valieva’s positive test for a banned heart medication, stemmed from a sample submitted Dec. 25. But a six-week turnaround, which U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart called “absolutely inexcusable,” delayed reporting of the result until after Valieva had helped Russia win gold in the Olympic team event — a gold so controversial the medals still haven’t been awarded.
The complex doping legal system then placed Valieva’s fate in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS, citing a provision that protects minors, kicked the can further down the road by giving Valieva the right to participate while withholding judgment on her guilt. Critics of the CAS’s decision, including many of the most prominent names in the sport, weren’t interested in such legalistic hair-splitting.
“I am so angry. The ladies event tomorrow is a complete joke,” former Team USA skater Adam Rippon said Monday on Twitter. “So many Olympic experiences stolen from clean athletes who got here without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. What a shame.”
The CAS leaned hard on Valieva’s youth as a mitigating factor against her guilt, and some fellow skaters expressed sympathy. For many, though, the explanation held little weight.
“We have to remind ourselves that she is just 15 years old, a minor, and I know more than anyone what it’s like to compete at an Olympic Games at 15 years old,” former U.S. skater Tara Lipinski said on NBC just prior to the competition. “But a positive [drug] test is a positive test. She cannot skate.”
“If you can’t play fair, then you can’t play,” Lipinski’s announcing partner Johnny Weir said, “and it is a shame because she is a tremendous athlete.”