by Melissa Paz-Flores (’22) | March 21, 2022
The Winter Olympics may have ended over three weeks ago, but the uncertainty surrounding the ethics of the event’s banned substances and doping policies lingers. This controversy reignites every four years, with a new slew of Olympians and top athletes under fire for using banned substances. The last two Olympics games were no different: Sha’Carri Richardson, an American sprinter, and Kamila Valieva, a Russian figure skater, are in the hot seat for these policies.
At 21 years old, Richardson was on track to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics, after coming in first place at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon — this location is crucial in understanding Richardson’s case. But weeks after her race, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced that she had tested positive for marijuana use. Cannabis is legal in Oregon, but not recognized federally or by the US Olympic Committee (Supremacy Clause ring a bell?). The USADA automatically revoked Richardson’s qualifying time and handed her a one-month suspension, causing her to miss the Olympics entirely.
In contrast, Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old figure skater, allegedly ingested trimetazidine weeks before her Olympics debut and then tested positive for the drug while competing in the women’s short skating program. Trimetazidine is a heart medication used to treat conditions such as angina; it allows for more blood flow to the heart and can increase overall stamina. Despite speculation and an investigation conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Valieva was still allowed to compete and skate for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).
“Can we get a solid answer on the difference between her situation and mine? My mother died and I can’t run and was also favored to place in the top three. The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady,” tweeted Richardson, responding to a video posted about Valieva’s sentencing. At first glance, the athletes’ situations seem comparable. But after sifting through the numerous policies surrounding drug use and enforcement in each country, the possibility of racially-motivated banned substance rulings may be surface-level and is rather an issue of the systemic bureaucracy.
In Richardson and Valieva’s case, each country handles it differently: while Valieva was given the green light to continue competing by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), an independent institution that resolves sports disputes, Richardson was cut from the Olympics by the USADA. A notable difference is that the CAS is simply a mediator between the IOC and ROC, while the USADA monitors and admonishes the use of illegal substances. Prior to 2015, Russia had an anti-doping agency of its own. That was until the organization was audited and reported to be covering up test results from the public eye. Russia was subsequently banned from participating in the Olympics, which is why we see the “ROC,” instead of “Russia” on their rankings list.
Age is also a factor in this controversy: Valieva is considered a “protected person” according to the World Anti-Doping code as she is not yet sixteen. Consequences for a protected person are usually much lighter as individuals involved are too young to implement full anti-doping rules and policies. How does a fifteen-year-old even have the knowledge or ability to take such a medication? There are speculations that Kamila Valieva was unaware of the medications she was taking. Perhaps coaches and mentors around her blindly encouraged her to consume it.
In any case, the rulings remained concrete and inflexible for Richardson, who admitted that she used marijuana as a means to cope with her mother’s recent death. But Valieva’s verdict was blurred and manipulated in her favor. The CAS, when making its decision, was undoubtedly aware of Richardson’s circumstances, yet made an exception for Valieva. Richardson’s rant can be a call to action, signifying that the Olympics’s tangled bureaucracy might be overdue for more uniform restructuring. For example, the US Olympic Committee’s inclusion of marijuana on its list of banned substances is widely seen as outdated and linked to discriminatory beliefs.
Such controversies point to the Olympics being a PR stunt. Yes, the events are breathtaking to watch and may seem like a symbol to bring nations together, but they also overshadow real-world issues that require more media attention. Doping controversies will likely continue to steal the spotlight in future Olympics games.
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