Kamila Valieva’s Doctor Has Long Worked in the Shadows of Sport
More than eight months after the Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva became one of the biggest stories of the Beijing Games for all the wrong reasons, the mystery behind her failed doping test that shrouded the Olympics remains unresolved.
How, and why, did Valieva, then 15, test positive for a banned heart drug just weeks before the Olympics? On Tuesday, world antidoping officials took the matter away from Russian authorities, whom they accused of stalling, and sent it directly to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Much of the attention has focused on Valieva’s hard-charging coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who rebuked Valieva on live television after the teenager’s faltering performance in the individual event in Beijing and has denied any role in doping.
But less well known and sure to be a focus of investigators is the team’s doctor, Filipp Shvetsky, who has a history with performance-enhancing drugs.
He has told Russian news media that he parted ways with Tutberidze after Beijing and says he is just as curious as everyone else about how a banned drug ended up Valieva’s system, a point of special concern because, at age 16, she is a minor.
When asked if he had given Valieva or other Russian skaters substances to enhance their performance, Dr. Shvetsky wrote in an email to The New York Times this week that he “hasn’t seen evidence of the use of anything.”
“For an athlete to be well-prepared, he must be loved, and that’s it,” he wrote.
This summer, Dr. Shvetsky told the Russian weekly newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta that any doctor, coach or athlete who uses banned drugs when a drug test is a certainty is “mentally deranged.”
Dr. Shvetsky continued, “The only ‘doping’ I gave Kamila was a gift of a copy of Picasso’s painting ‘Girl on a Ball.’ It was painted by an artist friend of mine. I officially recognize this ‘doping.’ I hope it helped her.”
Dr. Shvetsky worked closely with Tutberidze’s skaters for years and remains a doctor with the Russian national team. He long had been a regular presence alongside his young skaters at competitions and in practice rinks, and having a doctor so publicly involved raised eyebrows in the sport.
“The concern and diligence about an athlete’s entourage only goes up when a minor is involved, for all the obvious reasons,” Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, said in an interview last week, speaking generally and not about the Valieva case. “Those who provided drugs to athletes or encouraged the use of them should be held accountable.”
Dr. Shvetsky trained as an anesthesiologist, but in the world of sports, he is among the team doctors — including ones in cycling and running — who are known for finding loopholes in antidoping rules so their athletes can gain an edge.
Yet he insists that figure skaters wouldn’t be helped by performance-enhancing drugs or methods, a puzzling theory because any drug that enhances endurance can at least aid a skater to train harder.
“Figure skating is not body building,” he said in the interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta, adding that skaters need to combine strength, tenacity and coordination but that doping would enhance only one of those variables.
In an email this week, Dr. Shvetsky wrote that the Russian skaters don’t need to “look for a ‘miracle’” to be successful because their culture, training and nutrition give the most talented athletes the blueprint to be the best.
Whether Dr. Shvetsky or anyone else will be implicated in Valieva’s positive test is yet to be determined. Russia’s antidoping agency, known as Rusada, said in a statement last month that it would not reveal the outcome of the Valieva case, drawing immediate protests from world antidoping authorities, who have now sent the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a final ruling.
Any Russian decision was sure to be appealed to the court anyway, further prolonging the wait for the official results of the Olympic team figure skating event. Valieva led the Russians to first place, but the medal ceremony was placed on hold after her failed test was made public. The United States finished second in that competition, with Japan in third.
In a hint about how the Russian skating federation would react to an appeal seeking to ban Valieva, if it doesn’t ban her on its own, Russian lawmakers introduced a bill in parliament that seeks to nullify any Court of Arbitration for Sport decisions regarding Russian athletes.
Regarding the Valieva case, Tygart said, “This is a simple case that should have been done in a few days, but it’s so far from being over.”
Valieva’s initial explanation for her failed test, according to an International Olympic Committee official, was that it might have resulted from contamination, possibly from the heart medication her grandfather was taking. Since then, Dr. Shvetsky has submitted to hours of interviews with Russian drug authorities, he said in his interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta. He said he had provided “a set of circumstantial facts that may determine the motive and possible malicious intent.”
Motive in the case is the most important thing, he said in an email this week, and he doesn’t believe that Valieva had a motive to use the heart drug.
Xenon gas to enhance performance
Throughout Dr. Shvetsky’s career, he has stayed one step ahead of antidoping officials, creating ways to improve his athletes’ performance that would soon be illegal, or in one case, already was.
In the years before he joined the skating program, he provided banned intravenous injections to Russian rowers and was given a two-year doping suspension after first denying that he had anything to do with the procedure.
In 2010, he began working with the Russian figure skating team and sought ways to identify and address biological markers of fatigue. He traveled with athletes to competitions to help them with performance and pain management, and the team’s results under his watch have been astonishing.
At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Russian figure skaters delivered their best Winter Games performance ever, winning five medals. It also was the first time a Russian woman won an individual Olympic gold medal in the sport.
The World Anti-Doping Agency later barred Russia from international sports competitions after concluding that it had orchestrated and run a sprawling and government-backed doping scheme in Sochi. Dr. Shvetsky was not directly implicated.
Also in 2014, Dr. Shvetsky was among the Russian doctors and scientists who applied for a patent for an unconventional method of performance enhancement: a highly effective method of inhaling xenon gas that at the time was a legal form of performance enhancement.
In the patent application, Dr. Shvetsky said when athletes inhaled a combination of xenon and oxygen, it produced effects that helped them perform better, including the elimination of stress and anxiety, enhanced concentration, increased ability to endure extreme physical exertion and accelerated recovery. The paper also said it boosted an athlete’s desire to train and will to win.
The method was tested on high-performance rowers to see how much it increased testosterone levels.
In 2014, the German TV broadcaster WDR reported that xenon had been used on Russian athletes in various sports and competitions, including at the 2004 Athens Games through the 2014 Sochi Games, and that the method increased endurance by boosting an athlete’s red blood cell count.
Within months, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned the use of xenon gas.
Reviving the dead
Dr. Shvetsky, who works at a veterans’ hospital in Russia, is far from a typical sports doctor: His subspecialty in anesthesia is reanimatology, the science aimed at reviving people who are clinically dead, meaning that their blood has stopped circulating and they have stopped breathing. By contrast, the doctor who travels with the United States figure skating team is Ellen Geminiani, who specializes in sports medicine and orthopedics.
Dr. Shvetsky’s main contributions to reanimatology have been in the realm of fringe “fountain of youth” medical technologies developed in the former Soviet Union. His Ph.D. dissertation and subsequent research about intravenous laser blood irradiation described a method that helped surgical patients experiencing oxidative stress and improved healing.
The World Anti-Doping Agency determined the method was a non-pharmacological method of blood manipulation and banned it.
Since Dr. Shvetsky began working with figure skaters training under Tutberidze, Russian skaters, including Valieva, have dominated international competitions. Tutberidze’s female skaters have won gold in the last three Olympic Games.
Tutberidze and Dr. Shvetsky share the notion that young, prepubescent girls can deliver stronger performances than boys and men. What makes the girls such good jumpers is their strength-to-weight ratio and ability to rotate their bodies quickly and efficiently in the air — before puberty sets in and changes their body composition.
In recent years, the quadruple jump, which entails four revolutions in the air, has become crucial to an athlete’s success, and most of Tutberidze’s top skaters can execute it easily.
“It is more interesting to me to work with women who can be on par with men, and can withstand loads at the limits of physiological capabilities,” Dr. Shvetsky said in the interview with Literaturnaya Gazeta.
“It seems to me girls are more brave than men,” Dr. Shvetsky said. He said in the interview that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sent him a note of gratitude for preparing Russian athletes for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
At the 2021 Rostelecom Cup, in the run-up to the Beijing Games, Valieva seemed to validate Dr. Shvetsky’s belief in the strength of girls, outscoring the men’s champion.
Finding an Edge
Russian skaters endure a grueling training regimen that focuses on extreme repetition of quadruple jumps. Those jumps place enormous stress on the joints, and Tutberidze’s skaters — including Valieva — have broken their legs in training and in competitions. But with Dr. Shvetsky in charge, finding an edge through other means has been common.
Russian skaters have also sought to increase their oxygen uptake and endurance by using heart medications like meldonium. Months after the drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list in 2016, a Russian Olympic ice dancer was banned for testing positive for meldonium and missed the world championships. Again, Dr. Shvetsky was not specifically named.
Skaters on Russian national teams receive pill boxes containing medications tweaked as necessary for individual needs “in accordance with the WADA code,” according to a training manual written by a top government sports scientist. In the weeks leading up to the Olympics, one of the supplements on Valieva’s doping control form was L-carnitine, a weight-loss supplement. When taken with vitamins, according to a Russian study, L-carnitine has been found to increase the effects of endurance training.
Another substance listed on Valieva’s doping control form, Hypoxen, might improve lung capacity, and it was included on WADA’s 2023 monitoring program to see whether it should be banned.
One substance not listed on Valieva’s antidoping form was trimetazidine, the banned substance for which she tested positive.
When asked if he expected to receive a punishment in the case, Dr. Shvetsky answered in an email, “The most important question is why me?”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.