“Irreparable Harm” Was Done by Allowing Valieva to Keep Skating

Like millions of people around the world, I’ve been following the Kamila Valieva story. This fifteen-year-old figure skater from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) had performed brilliantly in the team event, helping the team win gold. She seemed destined to win the individual women’s gold medal as well.

But then, on February 8th, she was found to have tested positive for the banned substance, trimetazidine, in an earlier drug test from December 25th. (The test results were said to have been delayed due to a back-up in the testing lab.)

Two other (not banned, but suspicious) performance-enhancing substances were found on Valieva’s test and it seemed obvious that this fifteen-year-old couldn’t have doped herself with such a sophisticated drug cocktail. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to forego the medal ceremony for the team event, pending an investigation.

On February 14th, the three-person Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that because she is a minor, and a “protected person,” and because it might cause her “irreparable harm” not to skate, Valieva was allowed to continue skating in the women’s individual competition.

However, the IOC ruled that there would be no medal ceremony if Valieva placed first, second, or third in the women’s individual competition, and that none of the top three would receive their medals until the full investigation into Valieva and her team was completed.

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The CAS decision was shocking and disturbing to everyone watching and participating

This decision was distressing to the other skaters, as well as to former Olympians and commentators who expressed shock and outrage at Valieva still being allowed to compete. Some former Olympic medalists took to social media, posting their staunch opposition to the decision to let Valieva skate.

Commentators Tara Lipinsky and Johnny Weir were careful not to criticize Valieva herself, but both remained adamant that she should not have been allowed to skate.

Because Valieva is a minor, her coaches and her team were immediately under suspicion and the other ROC skaters were suddenly under intense scrutiny. The stress on the team, and on Valieva herself, went from enormous to overwhelming.

Valieva did well in the short program, but right afterwards, she broke down in tears and refused any interviews. She came into the free skate with the highest score from the short program. With her combination of technical skills and artistic ability, she still seemed destined to win the gold medal — if you knew nothing about human psychology.

Anyone with any emotional intelligence at all would have been waiting for Valieva’s inevitable crash and burn. There was no way that a fifteen-year-old kid could tolerate all the negativity swarming around her.

The decision not to award any medals if Valieva were to place in the top three put added pressure on all the other skaters. Imagine training intensively for years, only to be denied your moment on the podium because of someone who was found to have cheated but who was still allowed to compete? That decision risked causing “irreparable harm” to all the other competitors at these games.

And for Valieva, how frustrating it must have been to be allowed to skate, but to know that she was forbidden to stand up and receive her medal, maybe ever. I can’t imagine what it felt like for Valieva as she headed into the free skate, but her behaviour during those few short minutes gives a clear indication of her mental state at the time.

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Valieva understandably collapsed under the pressure

During the free skate, Valieva fell apart. She looked like a totally different skater, failing to land several jumps and tumbling to the ice several times.

It was obvious that the pressure was too much for her and she simply couldn’t cope. It showed in every movement she made on the ice. And when her routine was finished, she broke down in tears and didn’t stop crying, refusing any attempts at an interview.

Like all the other adults around her who had failed her, Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, only added to her suffering, as she was overheard to be berating the teenager, asking her, “Why did you let it go? Explain to me, why. Why did you stop fighting? You let it go after that Axel. Why?”

The IOC president, Thomas Bach, characterized Tutberidze’s response as “chilling,” saying that Valieva had been treated with “tremendous coldness” by her coach. He added that he was “very, very disturbed” at the reactions of Tutberidze, as well as Valieva’s “entire entourage.”

Still, this seems rather disingenuous, given that Bach and the IOC stood to benefit from Valieva being allowed to skate. Bach’s compassion for the teen was too little, too late.

After Valieva’s disastrous performance in the free skate, she dropped into fourth place and her two teammates, Anna Scherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, won gold and silver medals, respectively. Kaori Sakamoto of Japan won the bronze. Because Valieva had failed, the medal ceremony could take place.

The NBC commentators were overheard spontaneously saying “Thank goodness,” and “Thank God,” when the results were announced. Their relief was huge, and it mirrored that of so many of the viewers.

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Psychological awareness is necessary if you want to prevent “irreparable harm”

After Valieva came off the ice, anyone who was watching her team got to see the emotional fallout of the misguided decision to allow Valieva to skate. Ostensibly, the CAS had been trying to prevent “irreparable harm” to this young girl, but her obvious devastation following her final skate demonstrated that in fact, real harm had been done by allowing her to skate.

The CAS should have known how controversial their decision would have been, and how the brunt of the negative attention would fall on Valieva’s narrow shoulders. They should have understood that no young person could tolerate this amount of negative publicity and the mounting criticism coming from all sides. They should have recognized that it was inevitable that this young girl would crumble under the pressure.

As a psychiatrist and as someone who understands how the human mind works, I imagined that Valieva would have been understandably upset if she’d been prevented from skating after her test results came in.

But I also understood that this would have been much less harmful to her than the devastation she felt during and after her free skate — harm that could have been prevented if the CAS had ruled differently.

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All of the skaters suffered because of the CAS decision

The CAS ruling was deeply unfortunate because Valieva wasn’t the only one to suffer. The gold medalist, Scherbakova, was walking around in a daze, after she won the gold medal, saying that she felt “empty.” This is not your typical reaction to an Olympic win.

The silver medalist, Trusova, had a tantrum after the results were in, vowing never to state again. She was sobbing and almost shouting at her trainers — something I’ve never seen at any athletic competition, let alone at the Olympic games.

On the surface, Trusova was complaining that she was the only one from her team who didn’t have a gold medal, but it seems to me that there was something else at play here. I doubt that she would have had such a meltdown if it weren’t for all the stress that she and her team was under.

None of the skaters were left unaffected by the disastrous handling of Valieva’s situation. Her teammates had the worst of it, but everyone in the competition was left to grapple with the ramifications of the CAS’s ill-conceived decision.

It must have been horrible for these young skaters to be competing — fairly — against someone who they perceived as cheating. They must have felt so abandoned and betrayed by those entities who seemed to be breaking their own rules in this case.

The “irreparable harm” that the CAS was supposed to prevent has occurred. Their decision, as expected, has backfired — on Valieva, on her team, and on every other skater at these Olympic games.

Valieva has failed to live up to her promise as a superstar — and really, what fifteen-year-old could have done so, under the circumstances? She has lost her gold medal; she remains under investigation over the doping, and she’s an emotional wreck.

She’s garnered far more negative publicity by having been allowed to skate than she would have if she’d been made to sit out the rest of the Olympics. Who knows if she’ll ever skate again? In Russia, every athlete is easily replaceable. Her life is in shambles, and she’s only fifteen.

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The CAS lacked psychological awareness and emotional intelligence

The CAS demonstrated a profound lack of emotional intelligence when they chose to allow Valieva to skate. The outcome for her, and for everyone around her, was exactly the opposite of what they claimed to have wanted.

If “irreparable harm” was what they were trying to prevent, I wish that the CAS would have consulted with a mental health professional before rendering their decision.

Any competent psychologist or psychiatrist would have told them that allowing Valieva to skate would have been much harder on her, mentally, than preventing her from doing so.

The entire situation has been a disaster from the outset. From the delayed test results to the CAS decision, to Valieva’s implosion during the free skate, to her teammates’ misery after winning silver and gold, to the profound distress of everyone participating, commenting, or watching.

It’s a cautionary tale about how preventing irreparable emotional harm requires a much deeper understanding of human psychology than the CAS and the IOC appear to have.


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Marcia Sirota

Marcia Sirota


Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series