An Olympic Atrocity

How two doping scandals have drawn major attention to doping policies and Olympic biases.

Kamila Valieva (left) and Sha'Carri Ricardson (right). Photo courtesy of Slate.

Infamous doping scandals have haunted the Olympics since the beginning of the twentieth century and had a major impact on the Beijing 2022 Winter games and Tokyo 2020 Summer games. During the past two Olympics, two controversial cases involving an American sprinter and a Russian figure skater have taken center stage and caused a lot of questions around Olympic doping policies and punishments. Many wonder if the International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Association’s actions are fair and justified, or if they are biased and cruel.

In June of 2021, about a month before the start of the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 21-year-old American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson tested positive for THC in her system. THC is the chemical in marijuana responsible for psychological effects; the part that is only legal for people 21 and older. She had already qualified to compete in the Olympics and was favored for a medal finish in Tokyo. Richardson’s original suspension was for three months, but it was soon shortened to one month because she was cooperative and agreed to a counseling program. The reason Sha’Carri had started using marijuana was to cope with her mother's death, which she said was triggering and startling to her because she was told about her mom’s passing by a reporter out of context. None of her reasons for using marijuana were for sports enhancement, which also allowed her suspensions to be shortened. Because the ban was reduced to only one month, Sha’Carri had the opportunity to still compete in the 4x100 relay, her specialty. After the ban was reduced, the US Olympic Committee and US Track and Field prevented her from competing anyway, claiming her reduced suspension included the entire Olympics. Even with all the disappointment and scandal, Richardson accepted the decisions made by the US Olympic Committee with dignity and quickly apologized to all her supporters. Richardson’s case created a lot of media uproar; many people said the US decision was based on the fact Sha’Carri was a black woman.

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrating after winning the fourth heat of the Women's 100 Meter sprint. Photo courtesy of Ashley Landis

Only 7 months later, during the Beijing 2022 Winter games,

15 year old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for 3 substances, 1 of which was Trimetazidine. Trimetazidine is a banned drug by the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) because it improves your body's use of oxygen and limits quick change of blood pressure, which can heavily impact intense sports like figure skating. It allows you to be strong and perform at a maximum throughout the entire skate because you won’t be fatigued as easily and have better oxygen going to the muscles. The other two drugs, Hypoxen and L-carnitine (when taken orally) are not banned, but still, have a major effect on the body. The three drugs combined create higher endurance, reduce fatigue, and promote greater oxygen intake/efficiency. Many of the parts of Kamila’s case are unusual. First of all, she is only fifteen, and positive substance tests for athletes that young are extremely rare. There are several stories about how she got the drugs. Her mother said she was on Hypoxen for “heart variations”, and could have accidentally taken her grandfather’s heart drugs instead of her own. However, this seems unlikely because Kamila can read labels and wouldn’t have also ingested two other drugs along with her grandfather’s medication. Another theory swirling around the internet is that her infamous, severe coach, Eteri Tutberidze, forced her into taking the drugs. Other aspects of the case are peculiar too. Kamila was originally tested in December, but the Russian Olympic Committee claimed they didn’t find out about the results until the Olympics had already started. Once the results had been released, both the Russian Olympic Committee and WADA pushed for Valieva’s suspension that would have ended her Olympics. However, the International Olympic Committee overturned any punishment and allowed her to compete, and the WADA did too eventually. The IOC said since she was a minor, Valieva was a protected person and therefore wouldn’t receive a suspension.

Kamila Valieva performing her free skate routine during the Beijing Olympics team competition. Photo courtesy Andrew Milligan.

Both these cases have had major controversies, and it all comes back to the IOC and WADA policies. Two very similar, provocative cases occurred within 8 months of each other that brought significant attention to the way the IOC and WADA handle these cases and treat individual athletes. Both Kamila and Sha’Carri’s cases eventually boil down to the fact they both used banned drugs, yet they ended up with totally different punishments. Sha’Carri wasn’t using drugs for sports enhancement purposes, however, she received the harsher punishment that cost her her entire Olympics. Kamila used three drugs potentially all for performance enhancement and was allowed to compete in the entire Olympics, even though the RUSDA wanted her suspended. The IOC, WADA, and USOC disappointed Sha’Carri, they failed to fully understand her situation, gave her an unfair punishment, and proceeded to turn around and give another rule breaker an opportunity to compete, totally contrary to their treatment of Sha’Carri. It also seems that there were racial motivations since one of the few differences between the cases was that Sha'Carri is a black woman. Black people have a history of being unfairly targeted by drug laws, there were 300,000 black people incarcerated for drug law violations, making up 40% of the total 1.5 million incarcerations (The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race, UNODC) Statistics also show that all races and ethnicities violate drug laws at relatively the same rates, yet black people are punished the most frequently in general. The IOC and WADA are feeding into the stereotypes and oppression that was created by these disproportional incarcerations by punishing Sha’Carri and not Kamila who committed the worse crime.

At the same, the IOC, RUSDA, and WADA failed Kamila too. Young athletes are put under far more pressure than older athletes due simply to the fact they are so young. Younger athletes are typically expected to perform better because their bodies are in better shape and being young than all the other competitions creates a lot of anxiety for the athletes. For Kamila, that pressure was times ten; she was expected to win and was practically forced to perform by her coach Eteri Tutberidze. After she tested positive for the drugs, the IOC allowed her to compete anyway, which sounds like a good thing at first because they were protecting a minor. But instead, everything came crashing down on top of Kamila when her dreams were very publicly crushed during her disastrous short program. Kamila was then subject to even more badgering by her coach, more controversies on the internet, and whatever was going on in her own mind. If the IOC had stopped her from competing or if the RUSDA put their foot down, Kamila would have been saved from a traumatizing experience and learned from her mistakes.

The International Olympic Committee has dealt with many doping cases over the past century, but the way they have handled them has been disappointing, to say the least. Richardson and Valieva were extraordinarily let down because their situations were addressed the wrong way. Many people strongly believe that serious consideration needs to be taken into the existing doping policies and how they can be changed to ensure athletes are never hurt like this again.

Written by Elie Yates, Class of 25'