If a Medal Arrives in the Mail, Does It Still Shine?

There will be no winners.

If Kamila Valieva duplicates the nearly flawless skill she has flashed so far at the Beijing Olympics on Thursday, she will be a lock to finish first in the women’s skating competition.

First place, but she will not take home the gold medal, not yet, possibly never.

First place, but skaters who finish behind her will always wonder what might have been if she had been barred from taking the ice after testing found a banned substance in her urine.

First place, but the entire 2022 Winter Games, already controversial because of China’s record on human rights, will carry yet another scar.

Nobody wins.

The whole affair makes me think less about Valieva than her competitors. They include not only the women in the individual skating tournament but the team of United States skaters who took silver in last week’s dual-gender team competition, won by a dominant Russian squad led by Valieva, the lithe and talented 15-year-old.

The controversy over Valieva has rightfully received full-throttle attention, but her competitors have been overlooked. Each will now perform in an odd sort of limbo. If Valieva finishes among the top three after Thursday’s free skate, the International Olympic Committee has decided the traditional medal ceremony will not take place.

It may take weeks or months to determine whether Valieva should receive a medal or have her entire Olympics expunged from the record books.

Kara Goucher, shown competing at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, is now a leading voice in the movement for clean sport.Credit…Nick Laham/Getty Images

What must it be like for Valieva’s rivals? To get a sense, I reached out to Kara Goucher, a former Olympian who is now a track and field commentator for NBC and a leading voice in the movement for clean sport. She knows a thing or two about getting cheated.

Goucher competed for the United States in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games, running middle-distance events and the marathon. Toward the end of her career, she helped blow the whistle on her famed and now disgraced coach, Alberto Salazar, for pushing performance-enhancing drugs on some of his athletes.

Goucher said she hadn’t planned to pay much attention to this year’s Beijing Games. The figure skating and controversy over Valieva sucked her in. She watches with a grimace.

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“This whole situation is just a slap in the face to all the clean athletes,” Goucher said, speaking this week by phone from her home in Boulder, Colo.

What became clear as we spoke is something worth remembering: The psychological burden that weighs on athletes who play by the rules as they square off against those who don’t. “We’re asking the other skaters to be mentally strong beyond what anybody should ever be asked,” she said. “We’re asking them to say, ‘Hey, this person has had a positive test, but you know, you need to ignore that and go in there and still believe you can do it. Even though this other athlete potentially has an advantage that you could never have, rise to the occasion. It’s ridiculous.”

Goucher in 2017.Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Goucher never won an Olympic medal. But she did have a breakout performance at the 2007 world championships in Osaka, Japan, placing third in the 10,000-meter run, becoming the first American to win a medal in the event.

The bronze was hailed by the American track community as proof that distance runners born and raised in the United States could compete with anyone. But these days, she can’t help thinking about what her career would have been like if she’d stood on that podium and received the silver medal instead of the bronze, a seemingly small difference but one that would have meant not just extra prize and sponsorship money but also extra self-belief.

She can’t help thinking about it because, in 2015, a re-examined blood test showed the second-place finisher in the Osaka race, Turkey’s Elvan Abeylegasse, had doped. After long appeals by her rival, Goucher’s bronze became silver. Track officials sent it to her in 2020, 13 years after the race. When she saw the small box arrive in the mail, knowing what was inside, she said she could not open it. There were too many emotions: joy, frustration, anger, relief. Goucher and her husband, Adam, another former Olympic distance runner, along with their young son, held an impromptu awards ceremony in their living room. Friends hopped on Zoom to congratulate her.

“Unfortunately, by the time I get that silver, I’m not the same person I was in 2007, and certainly not the same athlete,” she said. “It was surreal. My moment has passed. And so, while I appreciate trying to right the wrong, it was too little too late.”

What a shame if something similar happens again after the Beijing Games because of Valieva’s extra edge.

After a strong performance on Tuesday, Valieva goes into Thursday’s free skate in first place.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

As expected, Valieva took to the ice at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on Tuesday and put on a memorable short program, the first leg in the women’s skating competition. Surrounded by controversy and suspicion, and with the eyes of the world upon her, she flowed across the ice, combining graceful skating with powerful leaps and a ballerina’s command of the stage.

But should she have been on the ice Tuesday?

Should she be on the ice when the competition finishes with the long program on Thursday?

Power speaks. It’s that simple. The bodies that oversee international sport laid the groundwork for the Valieva affair by giving a slap of the hand to Russia after it engaged in brazen cheating involving more than 1,000 athletes along with dozens of coaches and officials at the 2014 Sochi Games.

Instead of being banned outright from competition for long enough to send a stern message, Russian athletes have competed in every Olympics since. They are supposed to receive extra vetting to stave off the use of performance-enhancers like the medication recently found in Valieva’s blood that is thought to increase the heart’s efficiency.

Valieva leaving the skating rink after warmups on Tuesday.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Now, to the chagrin of Goucher and many others, if Valieva ends up among the top three performers in the individual event, perhaps more athletes will receive their medals by mail. That does nothing but rob the top finishers of the moment most precious to Olympians, the moment that sustains them during the months and years of wrenching practice. Standing on the podium, hearing their national anthem — that, of course, is the goal for every athlete at every Olympiad.

Now it will be gone. The other skaters will have to wait and wonder. Will the fourth-place finisher become a bronze medalist? Will bronze medals become silver and silver become gold?

How long will this take to sort out, and how long will the stain remain on skating, a crown jewel of every Winter Olympics?

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