U.S. anti-doping chief: Valieva saga is 'absolutely inexcusable’

BEIJING — U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart said Friday that the testing delay that allowed Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva to compete at the Olympics was "absolutely inexcusable" and "a catastrophic failure of the system that is so egregious, it almost seems intentional."

"I'm not saying that it is [intentional], because I don't know that," Tygart clarified in a phone interview. "But it never should've happened."

The International Testing Agency confirmed Friday that Valieva, the 15-year-old skating sensation, had tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance. The sample had been collected on Dec. 25. The "adverse analytical finding," the ITA said, was reported on Feb. 8. The 45-day turnaround allowed Valieva to win gold in the team event on Feb. 7, before the controversy erupted and overtook the Beijing Games.

Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said this "never should've happened." He said that anti-doping authorities often "expedite" lab results ahead of major competitions to preempt this exact scenario, and said that trimetazidine, or TMZ, "is a relatively easy substance to detect."

Dick Pound, the World Anti-Doping Agency founder and longstanding International Olympic Committee member, confirmed that the drug, which has been banned since 2014, is "obviously easily identifiable."

"Your positive test would've stood out like a sore thumb," Pound said. "So why did they wait so long, knowing she had been named as part of the Russian team?"

In a late-Friday statement, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) blamed the delay on "another wave of COVID-19, an increase in illness among laboratory staff and quarantine rules," which it said affected the accredited Swedish lab where the test was processed.

Tygart, in a text message, said he didn't buy that excuse "for a second."

"Send it to another lab if that arose!" he said.

Pound said he expected the delay to be a subject of questioning at an emergency legal hearing slated to begin in a Beijing hotel conference room this weekend. Three judges from the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will hear evidence and determine whether Valieva may compete in the Olympic women's singles competition, which begins Tuesday.

Governing bodies' credibility questionable

This past Tuesday, one day after Valieva became the first woman to land a quad at the Olympics, she was "provisionally suspended by RUSADA with immediate effect," the ITA said. On Wednesday, Valieva challenged the suspension, and a RUSADA committee overturned it. No reason was given.

The Russian Olympic Committee said Friday in a statement that Valieva had "passed numerous doping tests" before and after the Christmas Day one. This, Tygart said, was "classic diversion by the Russians."

The grounds for reinstatement "will be issued shortly," the ITA said, and explored at the imminent hearing, in which the ITA will argue before CAS and against RUSADA, based on the World Anti-Doping Code crafted by WADA.

Tygart, when asked if any of those organizations are trustworthy, laughed.

"Look, I hope to believe there's good people in all of the organizations," he said. "But make no mistake, the IOC controls it all."

The IOC created CAS and the ITA. It heavily funds WADA. An IOC vice president, John Coates, is the CAS president. Pound said the IOC doesn't have "direct power" over any of the supposedly independent organizations, but acknowledged that it has "influence."

Tygart also accused the IOC and WADA of failing to enforce reforms at RUSADA. "It’s incredible," he said, that RUSADA retains authority over doping control in Russia after its role in the infamous state-sponsored scheme last decade. In 2020, RUSADA fired a CEO, Yuri Ganus, who "was actually trying to clean it up," Tygart said. WADA expressed "concern" after the sudden resignations of board members. "So it's a mess," Tygart said. Pound agreed. "There's still a lot of concern out there," he said.

Perhaps the biggest failure, Tygart said, was a 2020 CAS ruling that "watered down" Russia’s punishment for the state-sponsored scheme to a "farce." CAS — perhaps fearing litigation if CAS levied a hefty ban, Pound said — halved a largely symbolic suspension to two years, and allowed suspected dopers, as long as they weren't convicted, to compete.

"The IOC, and their weak punishment — if you even want to call it a punishment — have only really incentivized the behavior," Tygart said.

"They're completely unrepentant," Pound said. "They haven't acknowledged anything. Every decision that's rendered gets appealed."

Lack of transparency

It's unclear, Pound and Tygart said, whether Valieva's violation is an isolated occurrence or part of a persistent state-sponsored scheme. Pound predicted that lawyers would try to "throw the coach or doctor under the bus." Russian news agency TASS reported late Friday that RUSADA had "initiated a probe" into Valieva's "assisting staff."

Russian lawyers, Pound said, will also "try and stay as far away from the substance of the matter as possible, and get into all of your procedural defenses. It's like criminal law these days. The major effort on the part of the defense is to keep facts from getting to the attention of the judge or jury."

Much of the case, including the timeline for a decision, remains shrouded in secrecy or uncertainty. The lack of transparency has led to rampant speculation.

"This drug doesn't just show up in your water somehow," Tygart said. "My guess is … there is likely someone else behind how she got this drug. Again, I don't know the facts. But clearly you have enough to ask those kinds of questions and demand answers to them."

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