Doping-Valieva’s cocktail of medicines raises concerns around supplement dangers

By Thomson Reuters Apr 12, 2024 | 6:15 AM

By Lori Ewing

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – The revelation that banned teenage Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva had been plied with 56 medications and dietary aids has shone a light on the murky world of legal supplements, where a contaminated powder or poorly-worded label could spell disaster for an elite athlete.

Canada’s double world figure skating champion Meagan Duhamel never trusted antibiotics during her competitive career and was even hyper-wary of vitamins and minerals for fear of triggering a positive doping result.

“I didn’t take antibiotics once in my elite career and I questioned any vitamins,” she told Reuters.

“No athlete is taking over 50 supplements as a teenager on their own or without ill intent. The athletes I know questioned everything and took maybe Advil (ibuprofen) and a few vitamins and that’s it.”

Duhamel won two world titles with pairs partner Eric Radford plus an Olympic team gold and like many athletes was alarmed by the laundry list of supplements Valieva’s team reported the teen was taking between the ages of 13 and 15.

“When we had to fill out a list of whatever we took within a certain number of days, mine was always the same: iron, magnesium and calcium,” Duhamel said.

“The lists that came from Chinese and Russian skaters sometimes needed the front and back of the paper.”

In January, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found Valieva guilty of committing an anti-doping violation after Trimetazidine (TMZ) was found in a sample in December 2021.

She was handed a four-year ban and her results at the 2022 Beijing Olympics were nullified.

Valieva blamed her positive test on a strawberry dessert prepared by her grandfather on a chopping board he used to crush his medication pills.

CAS’s detailed report stunned observers. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) called it “shocking”, while athlete-led group Global Athlete said it was “evidence of abuse of a minor.”


Sport nutritionist Stefano Montanari has warned parents and coaches looking for a competitive edge that there are potential dangers in feeding nutritional supplements to children.

“Even without looking at the list, in such a young athlete, (56) is a lot,” said Montanari, a lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University who works with elite athletes of all ages.

“When I have a call with parents, they ask me about supplements. It’s usually their first or second question. I always back-pedal and say, ‘Before looking into any supplements, let’s look at their diet’.”

He also warned of possible unhealthy side effects.

“There is little research, obviously for ethical reasons, done in youth athletes, so we don’t know much about what could be side-effects of taking supplements,” he said, adding there was a dangerous message in young athletes seeking success through pills and powders.

“You’re teaching that athlete that by just taking some pills she will get the best out of it for her career and her performance and recovery,” he said.

“It looks more or less like the bodybuilder at the gym who jumps on the bandwagon and takes everything, thinking ‘Oh, that could work’.”

Jeremy Luke, the CEO of Canada’s anti-doping watchdog the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport said the big concern around supplements is their lack of regulation.

“What’s really important for an athlete is you are responsible for what is in your body,” said Luke.

“Talk to your nutritionists and doctors, and make sure that you’re really, really, really careful with what you’re consuming. And make sure you have an entourage around you who you can trust and that is properly qualified and providing you with medical expertise.”


Ingesting a contaminated supplement is a common defence from athletes after a positive test.

Rachel Hannah, a five-times Canadian champion distance runner and registered dietician, said sport supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry with marketing promises that entice athletes around enhanced energy, recovery, weight loss, performance and more.

“Athletes are always looking at ways to improve performance and recovery so turn to supplements with this exact goal in mind,” she said.

“(Elite athletes) should absolutely make sure supplements are third-party tested to make sure what is listed on the label is in fact in the product. This also ensures safety when it comes to banned substances.”

In its January report “Operation Refuge, An Examination of Doping Among Minors,” WADA said that since 2012, 1,416 under-18s across all sports had returned positive doping tests.

They found the athlete often bore the full brunt of the positive test, reporting abandonment and blame from coaches and team mates.

One athlete said in the report said: “I remember no one, not a team mate, a coach, or another parent, offered any help or sympathy after I tested positive… everyone blamed me, and I blamed myself. I was trying to do my best and I still let everyone down.”

(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Editing by Ken Ferris)