Duncan Mackay

A year ago today, insidethegames broke the biggest doping story in the Olympic Games since Ben Johnson at Seoul 1988, when we exclusively revealed that 15-year-old Kamila Valieva had tested positive for banned drugs and the gold medals won by the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the team skating event two days earlier could be stripped from them.

The scoop was down to good old fashioned journalist by Michael Pavitt, one of our team at Beijing 2022, having the news nous to start digging when the medal ceremony was unexpectedly postponed and was told it was for "legal reasons".

He then correctly identified that it involved a member of the ROC team.

It was then a case of hitting the phones, calling up contacts, trying to get a steer in the right direction and then, having the courage of our convictions, to publish Valieva's name when we were 100 per cent sure it was her, but not having had anyone actually go on the record to confirm it.

Within seconds of publishing the news and posting it on our social media channels, the response was unlike any other story I have been involved in during my career of 30 plus years. Watching the Twitter likes going up by the thousands each second was strangely mesmerising. 

I had broken big doping stories before when I wrote for The Guardian, including a positive test involving British sprinter Dwain Chambers in 2003 when he was one of the favourites for the Olympic gold medal at Athens the following year, and one the same year where Manchester United footballer Rio Ferdinand was dropped from the England squad after failing to attend an out-of-competition drugs test.

I had also been behind the previous biggest story about Olympic doping since Johnson until Valieva when, in April 2004, six months before the start of Athens 2004 I exclusively broke the story in The Observer that sprinters Kostas Kederis and Ekaterina Thanou, among the favourites for gold medals in their home Games, and their coach Christos Tzekos, were implicated in a doping scandal in California.

Tzekos responded by telling the American news agency Associated Press that he was "going to sue The Observer for £80 million (£66 million/€75 million) for serious defamation", a threat he never followed up.

On the eve of Athens 2004, Kederis and Thanou pulled out of the Olympics, having evaded official drug-testers and faked a motorcycle accident as the central characters in a scandal that overshadowed the start of the Games.

As big as that Kederis and Thanou story was at the time, Valieva was on a whole different scale with the matter being raised in the Russian Duma, with one Deputy demanding to know, "who is this insidethegames?", and Vladimir Putin's official spokesman condemning our coverage.

The death threats and intimidation on social media sent to both myself and Michael Pavitt that followed the publication of the Valieva story were both frightening and amusing at the same time.

insidethegames journalists Duncan Mackay and Michael Pavitt received death threats and abuse online after breaking the story that Kamila Valieva had tested positve for banned drugs ©Daily Mail
insidethegames journalists Duncan Mackay and Michael Pavitt received death threats and abuse online after breaking the story that Kamila Valieva had tested positve for banned drugs ©Daily Mail

Valieva had gone into the Winter Olympics having already been billed as the greatest female figure skater in the world and Beijing 2022 was going to be her coronation in which she would be crowed as the queen.

On the second day of the team competition, she had made history, becoming the first female skater to land a quadruple-revolution jump in the Olympics. 

She landed two in her performance and led the ROC to victory, just ahead of the United States.

Zach Donohue and his US ice dance partner Madison Hubbell remembered what happened as they waited to be presented with their medals. 

"We were dressed in our ceremony gear in a room waiting to take a bus to the venue," he told National Public Radio

"And we're told, 'um, so [the ceremony] is cancelled'. And we're like 'ha ha ha. Yeah right. Funny joke. It's cool, let's go.'"

A team official assured them it was not a joke, and that it involved an unspecified doping case. 

"So, for all of us the first step was kind of incredulous wonderment," Donohue said.

A year on, the medals are still yet to be presented and, with the case almost certainly heading to the Court of Arbitration for Sport after the Russian Anti-Doping Agency's Disciplinary Committee effectively cleared Valieva after accepting the explanation that she had tested positive for the banned trimetazidine accidently by ingesting a drug her grandfather was taking for a heart condition, it will be many more months before a ceremony will be organised.

Putin has continued to demonstrate his support for Valieva, meeting her upon her return from Beijing, and earlier this week awarding her coach Eteri Tutberidze one of Russia's most prestigious prizes.

Tutberidze was announced as a recipient of the Order of Alexander Nevsky by Presidential decree for "ensuring the successful training of athletes who have achieved high sports achievements" at the Winter Olympics.

As well as coaching Valieva, Tutberidze trained Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova who claimed gold and silver respectively in the women’s singles event at Beijing 2022 after Valieva fell several times during her free routine as the pressure of being at the centre of a worldwide doping controversy took its toll on the teenager.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach called for an investigation after witnessing the treatment of Kamila Valieva by her coach Eteri Tutberidze at Beijing 2022 ©Olympic Channel
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach called for an investigation after witnessing the treatment of Kamila Valieva by her coach Eteri Tutberidze at Beijing 2022 ©Olympic Channel

After the event, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach heavily criticised Valieva’s entourage, including Tutberidze who he claimed had created a "chilling atmosphere", such was their public reaction to their skater’s performance.  

Broken and lost, Valieva received not a hug of consolation from a scowling Tutberidze but a hostile inquisition, in full glare of a disbelieving television audience.

"This was no way to treat a 15-year-old under such mental stress," said Bach. 

"I wish she has the support of her friends and family to help her through this difficult situation.

"I saw the pressure on her, it was beyond my imagination for a girl of 15. 

"To see her struggling, trying to compose herself, you could see the immense mental stress she was under."

Bach even called for Tutberidze and the rest of Valieva’s support team to be investigated.  

"There is a 15-year-old girl with a drug in her body that shouldn’t be there," he said. 

"The ones that administered it to her, these are the people that are guilty.

"It’s of extreme importance to open an investigation into her entourage. We’ve expressed this from the very beginning. She’s a minor. Doping very rarely happens alone, there is always an entourage."

But as is so often the case with the IOC under Bach, words are cheap.

There have been no signs of any investigation being launched and Tutberidze continues in her position as the world's leading figure skating coach, her advice sought even by athletes from outside Russia, with Italy’s Daniel Grassl admitting at last month’s European Championships that he had been working with her in Moscow.

Putin's decision to award Tutberidze an honour named after a medieval prince who rose to legendary status in the 13th century partly on account of his military victories over German invaders, could only have been more pointed if he had stood in front of Bach and stuck two fingers in his face.


One of the most remarkable aspects of last year is that Valieva continues to compete at such a high level, even if she is confined to Russia due to the country's international ban following its invasion of Ukraine. 

She may have understandably succumbed to the pressure in Beijing, but since then she has returned to dazzle on the ice.

Valieva finished second in December on her return to the Russian Championships in Saint Petersburg but her free skate routine, which paid homage to the hit Netflix series Wednesday with a move-for-move recreation of Jenna Ortega's viral Wednesday Addams dance, lit up the internet.

I am sure that Valieva enjoyed going viral for a second occasion in less than a year a lot more than she did the first time.