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How did the anti-doping system for the Beijing Olympics break down so badly?

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva skates during a training session on Saturday at the Capital Indoor Stadium practice rink in Beijing, China.
Matthew Stockman
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Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva skates during a training session on Saturday at the Capital Indoor Stadium practice rink in Beijing, China.

BEIJING — Officials with the International Olympic Committee say they've worked for nearly a decade to implement a system that would rein in rampant and systemic doping by Russian athletes.

So how did it happen that a drug test taken in December showing use of a banned substance by one of Russia's most high-profile stars wasn't revealed until after she competed in Beijing?

"Is it as sinister as a potential cover-up that a whistleblower exposed?" said Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which handles drug tests for American Olympic athletes. "Or is it gross incompetence, not processing the star of the Games' sample in a timely fashion?"

The timeline of the case, involving 15-year-old figure skater phenom Kamila Valieva, the first woman ever to land a quad in Olympic competition, is troubling.

According to two drug testing agencies that partner with the International Olympic Committee, Valieva submitted her sample on December 25th, 2021, after a competition in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The sample was apparently sent immediately to a laboratory in Sweden for processing.

But in separate statements, the World Anti-Doping Agency and the International Testing Agency acknowledged results of that test weren't made public until Feb. 7, 2022 — after Valieva skated a dazzling performance in the Olympic team figure skating event.

"Obviously I can't explain that"

International Olympic Committee officials have been asked repeatedly about that 45-day lag and an apparent breakdown in the drug testing regime.

"Obviously I can't explain that," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "I don't know about the exact delivery of the testing and the delivery of the sample."

Adams pointed to speculation that processing of Valieva's test might have been delayed because of the COVID pandemic, but said he wasn't able to confirm that was a factor.

Kamila Valieva of Team ROC stands with coach Eteri Tutberidze during a figure skating training session at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Saturday, February 12, 2022.
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Kamila Valieva of Team ROC stands with coach Eteri Tutberidze during a figure skating training session at the Beijing Winter Olympics on Saturday, February 12, 2022.

An official at the Russian Olympic Committee media office in Beijing, who declined to give her name, said they also had questions about the delay reporting Valieva's test results.

"We also have the same question," she said. "We are waiting for information."

The official later forwarded a statement to NPR from ROC chairman Stanislav Pozdnyakov, first quoted in the Russian TASS news agency, suggesting the timing raised "serious questions about the process."

Valieva led the Russians to an apparent win in the team figure skating competition on Feb. 7, with the U.S. finishing in second place.

But the medal ceremony was never held and it remains unclear who will receive the gold medal.

The day after the competition, on Feb. 8, Valieva was briefly suspended by Russia's national drug testing agency, known as RUSADA, and told she would not be allowed to compete further in the Olympics.

Valieva appealed their decision and on Feb. 9, after a meeting in Moscow, Russian officials reinstated her. She has continued to train in Beijing ahead of Tuesday's single women's figure skating competition - but she has not spoken publicly about her situation.

In a statement, the Russian Olympic Committee said Valieva has undergone two additional drug tests since December, including a sample taken in Beijing.

"Both resulted negative," the ROC said, adding that the country's sports officials intend to "protect the rights and interests of the ROC team members and to keep the Olympic gold medal won in fair competition."

Will Valieva be allowed to compete on Tuesday?

IOC officials have declined to comment on details of the case but they're clearly unhappy with Russia's decision to allow Valieva to return to the ice.

On Friday the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency submitted the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. In a statement, CAS said it would issue a ruling on Valieva's eligibility on Monday afternoon.

The IOC's Adams said the goal is to resolve this matter quickly and pivot back to a focus on competition.

"We have the practicality of an event coming up which needs to be cleared for all of us," Adams said. "We all want to see the concentration on sport. No one wants to see us looking at, concentrating on, potential doping cases."

But once Valieva's eligibility is settled, questions will remain about how the Olympic Games' anti-doping safeguards failed to prevent a mess of this magnitude.

Russian athletes are already competing in Beijing on a provisional basis because of past investigations that found widespread and systemic doping by that country's sports teams.

The penalties include a ban on the playing of the Russian national anthem and the flying of the Russian flag at the Olympics.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee released a statement saying the Valieva affair has left the credibility of the Olympic movement "teetering on the edge."

"It's imperative that we protect the integrity and advocate for fair and clean sport for all," said USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons.

Speaking on Saturday, the IOC's Adams said he expects the investigation of the Valieva affair to extend beyond her use of a banned substance and to include the behavior of Russian coaches and figure skating officials.

"We would very much encourage that. It's very important."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kamila Valieva (L) and the rest of Team ROC celebrate their gold medal performance during the the Team Event flower ceremony on February 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Matthew Stockman / Getty Images
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Kamila Valieva (L) and the rest of Team ROC celebrate their gold medal performance during the the Team Event flower ceremony on February 7, 2022 at the Beijing Winter Olympics.