Kamila Valieva’s Coach and Country Failed Her


Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva was under fire for doping, but was still allowed to compete in Beijing. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion. Now, that very dream may have been the cause of her own destruction, but not of any fault of her own. 

Just weeks ago, the world considered Valieva the “Golden Girl” of the Beijing Olympic Games. Renowned for her flawless technique, Valieva came into the Games as the heavy favorite to take home the gold in women’s figure skating. Things were looking up for her, especially after she led the Russians to gold in the team event and placed first in the short program. 

But then the world came crashing down. In the midst of the Games, news emerged that Valieva tested positive for a banned substance when the results of a December drug test were released. They found trimetazidine in her system, which can affect metabolism in a way that boosts skeletal, muscle and heart performance. 

After an initial suspension, the International Olympic Committee decided to end the suspension and allow Valieva to continue competing in the women’s event, saying that barring her from the competition would cause her “irreparable harm.” However, if she placed in the top three, the medal ceremony would be canceled as the investigation continued. 

The world went into an uproar, as skaters and fans alike questioned why an athlete already busted for cheating could be allowed to compete. USA Today called it a “slap in the face to all of those athletes doing it the right way.”

American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who could not compete at the Tokyo Olympics after testing positive for marijuana (a non-performance enhancing drug), took to Twitter to criticize the situation. “Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines?” she wrote. “My mother died and I can’t run and was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady.” 

Valieva quickly became a figure everyone wanted to see defeated, a representation of everything wrong in the sport. 

Here’s the thing. Kamila Valieva is 15 years old.

She may not have known what was going on around her. She lives in a nation that, time and time again, bends the rules to enhance their athletes in order to win at all costs. Even if Valieva knew she was consuming a banned substance, she lives in a nation that uplifts the act. As a young, impressionable teenager, having every adult figure in your life saying that it’s okay will condition you into believing the same. 

I wholeheartedly place the blame on every single adult around her for allowing this to happen. At this point in time, Valieva is the greatest skater in the world, with or without the drugs coursing through her system. Despite this, the people around her did not trust her enough to succeed without a performance-enhancing drug. Their hunger for gold overpowered Valieva herself, and it’s evident after watching her final free skate. 

The performance was uncharacteristic for a girl known for perfection. Valieva failed to land nearly every jump, tumbling to the ice in an exhausted heap on multiple occasions. After wrapping up her performance with a half-hearted wave to the crowd, Valieva collapsed into tears and skated off the ice with her head in her hands. She looked to her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, for comfort, only to receive coldness in return. 

“Why did you let it go?” Tutberidze snapped in Russian. “Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why? You let it go after that axel.” Valieva did not reply. 

Tutberidze is known for her strict regime over Russian figure skating, which produces some of the world’s greatest skaters. Yet she destroys countless young girls to do so. Her athletes are widely known as “one-and-done’s,” retiring at increasingly younger ages, riddled with chronic injuries, ruined menstrual cycles and severe eating disorders. Yet Tutberidze always comes home with world and Olympic titles to her name, and the International Skating Committee adores her. She is showered with awards while scarring her athletes for life. At the end of the day, most people care about the performances they watch, not the well-being of the skaters performing them. 

It’s obvious that Tutberidze’s athletes are conditioned to believe that anything but the gold is worthless. The second-place winner, Alexandra Trusova, completely broke down after winning silver, screaming that she would never skate again and accusing Tutberidze of sabotaging her choreography. At first glance, this looks like the reaction of a sore loser. I don’t see it that way. Instead, I see a girl completely broken by the system, forced into a mindset where winning is the only acceptable outcome. 

Meanwhile, reigning world champion Anna Shcherbokova won the gold, yet she sat completely alone as officials announced her victory. The look on her face was haunting. An Olympic champion should be jumping for joy, yet Shchebokova told reporters she instead felt empty inside. Winning is still not enough. 

As for Valieva, she fell to fourth place and missed the podium entirely. In a country that replaces their athletes for the next big thing like clockwork, her Olympic dreams may be dashed forever. I can’t even imagine how this entire situation will affect this teenager in the long run. After seeing her coaches’ reactions, they’ll likely push Valieva to put all the blame onto herself. 

I’m an athlete. I’m all-too-familiar with that toxic “win at all costs” mentality. It crushes you and makes you wonder if you’ll ever be good enough for the people around you. But what about how I feel about my own athletic ability? I’ve learned that victory is not the point of sports. It may seem like the best possible scenario, but if you don’t love what you’re doing, is it really worth it? Sports are about both relationships and the skills you develop along the way, as cheesy as it sounds. At the end of the day, a medal is just a medal. 

I can only hope Valieva can escape the toxic cycle she’s embroiled in. In my eyes, all Tutberidze cares about is winning the gold. She couldn’t care less about the 15-year-old girl she has utterly destroyed.

Taylor Mascetta, FCRH ’23, is a journalism major from Danbury, C.T.