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One year later, still no medals in disputed Beijing 2022 Olympic team skating event

Kamila Valieva of Russia competes during the Women Single Skating Free Skate at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 07, 2022.
Matthew Stockman
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Kamila Valieva of Russia competes during the Women Single Skating Free Skate at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 07, 2022.

It's a not-so-happy Olympic anniversary this week.

A year ago, Russia won the team figure skating event at the Beijing Winter Games, powered by teenage phenom Kamila Valieva. But her subsequent positive drug test marred the Games and left the team results in limbo.

Still.

Valieva's case remains unresolved and the Olympic athletes, including second-place finishers from the U.S. team, don't yet have their medals.

No joke

On the first day of the team event, last February, Zach Donohue and his U.S. Ice Dance partner Madison Hubbell did their part.

Their personal best score helped stake the U.S. to an early lead.

But on the final day of competition, then 15-year-old Valieva, a pre-Olympics favorite, was as good as advertised. She made history, becoming the first female skater to land a quadruple-revolution jump in the Olympics...she landed two in her performance...and led the Russians to victory, just ahead of the U.S.

Donohue remembers the next day, as the American skaters were getting ready to head to the ceremony where they'd claim their silver medals.

"We were dressed in our ceremony gear," Donohue said, "in a room waiting to take a bus to the venue. And we're told, um, so [the ceremony] is cancelled. And we're like 'ha ha ha. Yeah right. Funny joke. It's cool, let's go.'"

But a team official told them – it was no joke. There was a doping issue and the official couldn't say more.

"So for all of us," Donohue said, "the first step was kind of incredulous wonderment."

Zachary Donohue and Madison Hubbell of Team USA skate in the Ice Dance Rhythm Dance Team Event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 04, 2022.
Justin Setterfield / Getty Images
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Zachary Donohue and Madison Hubbell of Team USA skate in the Ice Dance Rhythm Dance Team Event during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at Capital Indoor Stadium on February 04, 2022.

More emotion followed, like frustration and disappointment, as information emerged.

Valieva tested positive for a banned drug from a sample taken more than a month before the Beijing Games. Her case should've been resolved, but wasn't by the time the Olympics started. Once her positive test was confirmed, after the team event, Valieva was allowed to continue competing in Beijing.

And then, the months started to roll by, still with no resolution.

"[There was] outrage and just disbelief," Donohue said, "that this is still the situation."

Salt on the wounds

Donohue says there's been a lot of loss for the team athletes. They missed out on their memorable Olympic victory stand moment. Those, like him, who've since retired, missed out on financial opportunities from bonuses, show appearances and sponsorships. Those still competing aren't able to go into their events with the status and title of an Olympic medal winner.

But he believes the ongoing delay has an even greater impact, beyond the individual team athletes.

"The Olympics represent something very special," Donohue said. "It's a neutral playing field [where athletes] come and in front of the world, declare their hard work and their dedication and their determination and grit and their integrity of who they are as athletes."

"The decision being postponed for so long really detracts from the integrity of the Olympic image and the Olympic values. And I think it takes a lot away from the integrity that the majority of athletes choose, in the choices they make on an everyday basis of how they train, how they fuel, how they recover."

"So [the] conversation was a lot more than just one medal ceremony at stake here. [It's about] the way the world views the sport and the way the world views, specifically, figure skating. And that's something that is really in jeopardy."

And now, a recent decision in the Valieva case, seemingly has made the situation worse.

"Here we now are," said anti-doping official Travis Tygart, "throwing salt on those wounds."

Tygart, CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency says the salt came last month, when the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, RUSADA, decided to clear Valieva of wrongdoing. Tygart says the decision lacked transparency and independence, and was made by an organization declared non-compliant as far back as 2015.

"[Rusada] was declared non-compliant for its involvement as an instrument of the state," Tygart said, "[for] running an intentional state sponsored doping program where they knowingly gave and assisted athletes from Russia to use drugs in there, knowingly sent them to international competition in order to rob other athletes and to win at the highest levels."

Travis Tygart, of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, speaks during a 2017 Congressional hearing on "Ways to Improve and Strengthen the International Anti-Doping System."
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Travis Tygart, of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, speaks during a 2017 Congressional hearing on "Ways to Improve and Strengthen the International Anti-Doping System."

"And so why we ever thought we could trust that system to have a fair, objective, independent decision [on Valieva]? It's quite maddening."

In Russia, an attitude that's reportedly persisted for years, is that within elite sport, everyone dopes but only Russians get penalized.

"We welcome the decision of the RUSADA disciplinary committee," said Dmitry Svishchev last month. He's Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Physical Culture and Sport. "I am sure that there is a strongly supported motivational decision behind such a decision."

Another credibility hit

The World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, says it's likely to appeal the Valieva decision.

Tygart says it's imperative.

"For the sake of the credibility of the global anti-doping system," Tygart said, "[WADA] has to make a decision to appeal this case. If they don't, frankly, it would be significant. [In] the eyes of the public who are watching the athletes and those of us who have been fighting for clean sport for so many years, it would be close to a fatal blow to the credibility of the system."

WADA, he says, is not beyond blame in this case; nor is figure skating's international governing body.

"You know, both of them could have gone directly to [the Court of Arbitration for Sport], and taken [the decision] out of Russian hands. And that's what we called for. Because we knew, you can't have a non-compliant [organization] making a fair, balanced decision."

Instead, it's now a year later and anti-doping efforts in Olympic sport have taken another credibility hit. Athletes from the U.S., Japan [3rd place in the team event] and yes, Russia, wait and wonder about their medals.

Although, not always.

"I have to be honest, there were multiple times that I would look at that email [updating U.S. athletes on the Valieva case]," Donohue said, "and go 'oh my God, I forgot that I'm waiting on a medal.' It's been so long that it's not even relevant."

It will be relevant though, when Valieva's guilt or innocence finally is decided. And when all the athletes gather to accept whatever medals resolution brings. That could include skaters from Canada, who finished fourth in the Olympic team event but might move up in the standings if a guilty verdict disqualifies not only Valieva but her Russian team.

For the waiting athletes, Donohue says he's heard they want their stolen Olympic moment to be truly Olympic this time. Meaning a possible medal ceremony at next year's Summer Games in Paris.

Assuming the case is closed by then.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.