When I was 18 years old, I competed at the Pan American Championships in Lima, Peru, before going on vacation with my family to Machu Picchu. One month later, I tested positive for a drug called acetazolamide.

According to WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, acetazolamide is a substance that can be used as a masking agent to hide the presence of other drugs and is thus prohibited at all times. 

It is also a commonly prescribed medication used to treat altitude sickness. 

In the fall of 2018, I finished competing at the rhythmic gymnastics World Championships in Sofia, Bulgaria, which normally marks the beginning of the off-season, but in this case, preceded one extra competition. After the job was done, I was feeling both exhausted and exalted in the high mountains of Peru, and I let my guard down. When I began to feel lightheaded, nauseous and symptomatic of altitude sickness, I took the white pill my mom handed me — assuming it was ibuprofen, which is non-prohibited.

It wasn’t.

In rhythmic gymnastics, you become a senior athlete when you turn 15, and you enter the drug pool when you make the national team. For the rest of my career, I reported where I was living, training and traveling at all times to USADA, the US Anti-Doping Agency, so I could be tapped for random drug testing at any time, in addition to being tested every year at the U.S. National Championships. I was also subject to testing at every international World Cup or Grand Prix I went to, administered by the respective host country’s doping agency, separate entirely from USADA’s jurisdiction. Every country has its own protocol, but adheres to a globally agreed-upon standard set by WADA. As an athlete, I tried my best to be as diligent as possible. No poppy seeds, no multivitamins. No supplements at all, because even if I went through the rigmarole of getting a third-party certification of a substance, USADA would still not approve the drug, not wanting to be held liable for any possible contaminants.

A few days after I arrived back home, USADA came knocking on my door at 6 a.m. for a urine and a blood sample. Four weeks later I received notification of my positive result, and thus began a long and strenuous legal process, where I had to painstakingly prove that my mistake was both unintentional and incommensurate to a prolonged punishment. 

Ultimately, I was sanctioned for six months, unable to train with my team or compete in any capacity. To the outsider, six months might seem like a successful outcome— lenient, even— but for an elite athlete hoping to qualify for her second Olympic Games, it was a cataclysmic ordeal that uprooted my life. I could have appealed to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but at what cost, and for what probability of success?  

“You’re not a person, you’re an athlete.” This was the refrain I began to understand throughout the process, how the burden of proof and responsibility fell squarely upon my shoulders. Never mind that the drug was non-performance-enhancing, taken after the competitive season and ingested without malicious intent in a fatigued state of mind; the rules were clear. Yes, certain details would be taken into account, but more important than any such context was the fact that I had been negligent in the first place, and so needed to be punished.

It is fair to be held accountable. But is it fair for individual mistakes to feel so criminal when actual and systematic doping schemes are being perpetuated elsewhere? Does justice bear credibility when it’s not proportionally disseminated? When degrees of punishment are subjective, but not transparent? When embedded conspiracies are discovered after the fact, without thorough follow-up, explanation or retribution? The rules were, ostensibly, clear in my case — but that doesn’t seem to hold true for every other case.

During my investigation, I learned about athletes who were given mere reprimands or absolved completely due to acceptance in their argument of accidental ingestion, be that contaminated drinking water or contaminated food. There were cases where an athlete accidentally used their mother’s inhaler, ingested their wife’s medication or trusted a team doctor’s prescription. 

In the case of 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva at the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, the pitfalls of the doping system were once again center stage. Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a substance that can elicit increased stamina but is also used to treat heart disease. The issue was the timing: any litigation of a positive case takes at least one month to process upon receipt of notification, if not more, but her result came back after she had already competed in the team event. So in effect, there were three questions to resolve: one — would this disqualify her past performance and thus negate Russia’s golden team medal? Two — would she be allowed to compete in the individual event? And three — if she earned a medal in the individual event and was later found guilty, would the disqualification happen retroactively?  

In the end, she was allowed to compete, but question number three became a moot point. Protocol says that with notice of a positive result, an athlete is immediately suspended. Pending an official judgment, an athlete cannot compete. In the eyes of the panel, however, given this “extraordinary” circumstance, they were being generous by letting her compete, despite it being explicitly against the rules, and irrespective of the chaos it would cause. By blatantly disregarding their own rules, another precedent of selective enforcement was established. Any attempt to salvage the young girl’s experience backfired as Valieva instead became the public’s de facto scapegoat for the CAS decision, her performance a lose-lose situation in which many were rooting for her failure. 

If anything, I am sympathetic to Kamila, and all the athletes involved. I don’t think she should have been allowed to compete, but I don’t think she deserved extraneous blame either. The shadow of a scandal detracts from the point — from the privilege of the spotlight, years in the making. It’s a frustrating situation when athletes’ best interests don’t feel prioritized, and the system loses all pretense of credibility. It’s unfair to her and unfair to the rest of the athletes. I think it’s premature to accuse her of anything elaborate without all the facts, but I’m not granting her blanket immunity either. Rather, I am left disenchanted with the system — a system that allowed such an incident to escalate, and burdened other athletes in the crossfire.

I cannot imagine exactly what it must’ve felt like to skate that day, but I can imagine it better than most. Throughout my own sanction, I struggled with shame, and the guilt of being perceived as a cheat when I had only ever been clean. It was painful, expensive and a hard lesson to learn. It still feels like there is little distinction between those who make honest mistakes and those who cheat on purpose. I don’t pretend to have the answers, nor do I ask to be absolved — I can only speak from my own experience. To me, however, there is something fundamentally flawed with a system that is continually exposed, exploited and embroiled with scandal, over and over, unable to hold accountable what it demands from its athletes. 

Laura Zeng is a first-year in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at laura.zeng@yale.edu.

Laura Zeng is a staff reporter covering arts and culture. Her column, “Ask an Olympian,” runs bi-monthly. Hailing from the suburbs of Chicago, she is interested in Architecture and the Humanities.