IT’S the moment every athlete dreams about: the first bars of the national anthem ring out, the flag starts to rise, and a suited official approaches bearing the ultimate symbol of sporting excellence – the Olympic medal.

Winter Olympians often have to wait for their shot on the podium, as the cold weather means less hingin aboot after a sporting triumph. Many of the events have an instant “victory ceremony” where cuddly-toy mascots are handed out, and a medal ceremony elsewhere some time later.

But for those who ranked first, second and third in the figure skating team event at the Beijing Games last Monday, this moment will never come. The medal ceremony, which was postponed after 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva was found to have failed drug test, has now been cancelled.

All those years of training. All that sacrifice. All the pressure building up to this point. Only to head home with a toy panda and a bad taste in your mouth.

The National: Clare Balding

There will be no ceremonies of any kind after this week’s women’s single skating competition in the event that Valieva comes in first, second or third place – which, based on her performances last week and the bookies’ odds, seems highly likely. “She defies the laws of physics,” declared the BBC’s Clare Balding (above) after watching her perform last week, becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump at a Winter Olympics.

It turned out she had been defying her own biological limits too, as a urine sample from December 25 tested positive for heart medication trimetazidine. The drug is banned because it can improve the stamina of healthy athletes.

In a world in which we are now accustomed to rapid turnaround for Covid PCRs, it seems quite extraordinary that the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) did not learn of this positive result until February 8 – the day after the team skating event had concluded. It claims an Omicron outbreak in Sweden delayed test analysis at the lab in Stockholm, but the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) blames Russia for the delay, claiming it should have advised the lab that the analysis needed to be fast-tracked due to Valieva’s forthcoming participation in the Olympics.

Certainly, if you’re going to spoil someone’s Christmas Day by asking them to pee into a cup, it would seem courteous to get back to them about it before Chinese New Year. Dick Pound, founding president of WADA, says the positive test would have “stood out like a sore thumb”.

Rusada initially suspended Valieva, but swiftly lifted the suspension after she appealed. It was left to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to decide whether the Russian agency was right to do so, but yesterday’s ruling raises more questions than it answers.

Having apparently weighed up fundamental principles including fairness and proportionality, it decided that preventing the skater from competing at the Olympics would “cause her irreparable harm”. It also suggests that her status as a “protected person” due to her age means that special rules should apply. It points out that the relevant authorities “are silent with respect to provisional suspension imposed on protected persons”, seeming to suggest that they just forgot to write down a special set of rules, whereas one might conclude they are silent about these special rules because there are none.

The fact that Valieva is only 15, and hails from a country that has engaged in state-sponsored doping on a massive scale, will have a big impact on public perceptions of the failed test. Should she be held personally responsible for this situation, and forever branded a cheat? She is head and shoulders above her nearest rivals and it seems entirely possible she’d be going for gold even without any extra help.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport should surely have taken into account whether letting Russia exploit loophole on top of loophole causes “irreparable harm” to the reputation of the Olympics, and also to current and future members of teams who may be put under extreme pressure to cheat.

The National: Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Alexei Druzhinin/AP)

Russian athletes are currently only able to compete at the Olympics under the team name of “Russian Olympic Committee”, and the Russian anthem is not played in the event of a gold medal win, but these feeble sanctions did not stop Chinese president Xi Jinping (above right) from inviting Vladimir Putin (above left) to the opening ceremony. When this is what punishment for years of systematic doping looks like, no wonder the cheating continues.

US gymnast Simone Biles sparked a global conversation about the psychological pressure placed on elite athletes when she pulled out of Olympic events in the summer, and alongside countless others has courageously spoken about her experience of being sexually abused by US team doctor Larry Nassar. It’s clear that many young people suffer abuse – and irreparable harm – while striving for sporting success, and the majority of them never get anywhere near the Olympic Games.

Even if it is in Valieva’s best interests to carry on skating under a cloud this week – and I’m far from convinced it is – there is a real danger this ruling sends the message that where under-16s are concerned, abusive coaches and doctors can do what they like.