Meagan Duhamel, a 2018 Olympic gold medalist, describes the controversy over figure skater Kamila Valieva’s failed drug test and subsequent backlash as “heartbreaking.” On Thursday, tears rolled down the cheeks of 15-year-old Valieva after she failed to medal — and fell and stumbled a handful of times — at the Olympic women’s free skate program. The moment came during a looming international conversation over the controversial decision to let her skate amid a doping scandal.
At first, the decision to allow Valieva to compete after testing positive for trimetazidine — a drug used to treat angina, or chest pain — sparked outrage in the Olympic community. Runner Sha’Carri Richardson — who was banned from competing at the Tokyo Olympics due to testing positive for marijuana — called out a double standard in Olympic sports. And Adam Rippon, a current coach, described the Russian Olympic Committee as “dirty, fucking cheaters.”
Ultimately, however, her case also sparked a sense of empathy for the teenager. The situation reminds the sports world of systemic issues of doping in the Olympics, specifically related to Russia, but also the abuse of minor athletes within the sport, Duhamel explains. “This is not [Kamila’s] fault. She did not go to a pharmacy and buy these drugs herself,” she tells Rolling Stone. “They were given to her by people around her.”
“It’s just a whole broken system,” she adds.
What Duhamel believes needs to happen is a real, thorough cleaning of Russia’s Olympic Committee, their ultimate banning, and a change in the age requirements for Olympic competition overall. (Russia currently cannot compete under their flag nor play their national anthem when athletes of the country earn a gold medal.)
“Right now, this coach [Eteri Tutberidze], and her team, really excel at teaching these young children really difficult skills. And then these children retire at 16 or 17 years old, with injured backs, injured legs, eating disorders, mental health issues,” she explains. “You should not be under 16 if you want to compete at the highest level. I think the Russian Olympic Committee needs to be held to higher standards with regards to doping and how they treat these minor athletes.”
How are you feeling about what happened with Kamila?
I have a lot of feelings. When everything was exposed and it was said that she would be allowed to compete, I was feeling really broken for my sport. Doping is not very prevalent in figure skating, but when we do see it, it tends to be from skaters from the Russian Olympic Committee, unfortunately. It just became really, really sad. Today was proof of why she should not have been allowed to compete. The sports court said that she was allowed to compete because she was a minor and they didn’t want to have any irreparable harm. They didn’t want to cause any long-term damage, but I think letting her compete has caused more damage than just telling her no in the first place.
Why do you think so?
She had such terrible performance today, completely understandably since she’s been under enormous amounts of stress and pressure with this whole doping situation. From what we have publicly seen, she is not surrounded by the most loving and supportive coaches. All of that together creates big red flags. Today, as everything crumbled out of her control, she just couldn’t handle it anymore. It was just a really, really sad situation to see. We shouldn’t have had to watch that.
At first, there seemed to be anger surrounding this situation. Now there’s a tinge of sadness, given the fact that she’s so young. How do you contextualize this?
The Russian Olympic Committee was banned after the 2014 Olympics. Not completely banned, because they’re still there, but they cannot compete with their flag or with their national anthem. Removing all those things, we’re still — for three Olympics in a row — seeing positive doping tests coming from athletes from Russia. They have not faced consequences that have made them change their behavior. And to me, that’s the biggest thing. The only way this country and this culture will change is to not be allowed to compete at all, not [from] removing their flag and their national anthem — they don’t care. They’re still going home and being celebrated as a Russian Olympic athlete. They should be banned from competing until they show that that system is completely cleaned up.
We’re talking about a minor and the repercussions that that might have on her. You shared a Twitter post where Valieva’s coach seemed to be yelling at her following her poor performance. As a figure skater yourself, how important was having a good support system?
The support system is everything. When you finish your meet or your performance, it’s a highly emotional moment. It’s not the time to say anything negative or to react in a really brash way, you have to let the dust settle — whether it was good or bad, It’s not the time to attack somebody. And unfortunately, the world has seen this coach treat skaters like this for the last eight years. And also very publicly speak to the media almost as if bragging saying that they limit food, they weigh the athletes every day, that when the athletes are competing, they’re not allowed to drink water, they can just rinse their mouth and spit it out.
It’s just so unfortunate because we have a whole system of safe sport in North America and really big regard to child abuse. It just doesn’t seem like that’s the same in Russia. And these children are really put in danger. We’ve publicly known about it, and it’s just been pushed underneath the rug. This coach was named Coach of the Year by the International Skating Union. It’s just crazy.
Sha’Carri Richardson addressed this situation and said she felt that there was this double standard because she’s a young Black woman. What do you have to say about how these situations were different?
I don’t really see how it’s different at all, except for the final outcome. They both had a positive doping test before the Olympics, not at the Olympics. Before. One of them for performance-enhancing heart medication and another for marijuana. One of them suffered a suspension until the investigation was complete, and the other one was allowed to compete. The double standard we’re seeing here is very wrong and unnecessary.
Do you think this situation is sparking a real conversation within the Olympic community?
I’d like to think so, but for some reason the powers that be — at the International Olympic Committee, with WADA, with the International Skating Union — have made some really terrible decisions, at least in regards to Kamila Valieva’s situation. So, I don’t know if I trust that they are looking at everything and investigating it properly, but I really hope that they are.
What kind of repercussions could somebody like Kamila face psychologically?
We’re gonna see one of two things with Kamila. One: We are never going to see her again, she’s not going to compete anymore, or two: She’ll serve a suspension after the investigation is done. And when that’s done, she’ll have to decide to move on — or we’re going to see her have a turning point in her life, hopefully a little bit of an epiphany, and surround herself with a really supportive coaching team. That’s what needed to be done. Her mother should have taken her home from the Olympics, and just surrounded her and sheltered her with love and support during this time. And instead, she was left at the hands of these coaches and doctors and Russian Olympic Committee officials. I just think it was just such a terrible decision.
Do you think there’s a different culture in North America from Russia when it comes to minors in sports and doping?
Absolutely. When it comes to the way we treat children, it should be the same standards everywhere. These are children. When it comes to doping children, there should be the same standards everywhere. We’ve long assumed that something like this might be happening in Russia, especially in this skating school, because these young kids were just like, too good, too young, almost to the point where it was like magic. But you never want to believe something like this is happening until the facts come forward, kind of like they did here.
What do you think comes next?
There’s been a lot of skaters and coaches speaking out on this and demanding change, demanding that the age limit is raised and that the coaches and doctors get investigated — not only suspended, but banned from working with children again.
What would you tell Kamila if you could talk to her after what happened today?
To surround herself with support and with love, and to take a step back. Sometimes you have to take yourself out of the bubble that you’re in to really see it clearly. I would tell her to find some supportive and loving people. I think she’s a very smart and intelligent 15-year-old. And I think that if she could just take a step back, outside of her bubble, away from the people that she’s surrounded by right now, she might see things a little bit clearer and a little bit differently. But right now, she needs some time away from the toxic people in her life.
How do you think seeing something like what happened with Kamila will affect up-and-coming figure skaters?
What this situation taught us was that if you’re under 16 and you’re doping [that] it’s OK, when it should really be the opposite! It should be worse if you’re doping when you’re under 16 because that means somebody is enabling you and abusing you. I think it’s gonna take a lot of kids out of the sport and a lot of parents not wanting to put their kids into figure skating. I think that’s a real shame. There is great beauty in the sport of figure skating, it’s just a system that needs to be reevaluated and recreated.