She was a teenager, barely old enough to compete at the Olympics, and she did it almost flawlessly. After her last performance, to music from “Riverdance,” she pumped her fist and ran to her coach, who hoisted her onto his shoulders to wave to the crowd. There was no need to wait for her score to know she had won.
Then, abruptly, the dream was gone: She was stripped of her gold medal after she tested positive for a drug she didn’t know she had taken.
The athlete, Andreea Raducan — 16 years old when she and two other Romanian gymnasts swept the women’s all-around podium at the 2000 Olympics — became a cautionary tale for young prodigies who conquered their sport by doing everything the adults around them told them to. She had woken up with a cold, and the Romanian team doctor had given her an over-the-counter medication that she took without a thought. It contained pseudoephedrine, a banned substance.
The contrasts with the treatment of the Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who has been allowed to compete in Beijing despite having tested positive for a banned heart medication, are stark.
Valieva, 15, could ultimately receive the same punishment as Raducan. The International Olympic Committee has said that if she reaches the podium on Thursday, it will delay the medal ceremony until the case is resolved. The Court of Arbitration for Sport said that its decision to let her compete was not a final verdict but an acknowledgment that barring her would have consequences that could not be reversed if it ultimately cleared her of wrongdoing.
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But the deference she has received thus far is hard to reconcile with the treatment of Raducan, who was only a year older and whose situation was even more ambiguous.
The heart medication found in Valieva’s urine sample, trimetazidine, is linked to greater energy and endurance, and the fact that it was accompanied by two additional substances that aren’t banned and that can sometimes be used to help the heart makes it appear less likely that she ingested trimetazidine unintentionally.
By contrast, few people argued that Raducan had taken pseudoephedrine for performance-enhancing purposes, or even that the substance had enhanced her performance. At the same Olympics, she tested clean for two other events in which she excelled: the team final, in which Romania won gold, and the vault final, in which she won silver. (She kept those medals.)
But for the purposes of Raducan’s all-around medal, the court concluded that her age and her intentions were irrelevant. It affirmed that the doctor was to blame and that Raducan was not, but it also said the rules were the rules: There was a banned substance in her system, so she couldn’t keep the medal.
Raducan did not respond to interview requests.
In an interview on Tuesday, Dominique Moceanu, a gymnast who was 14 when she won gold with the U.S. team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, described what it was like to be a child competing under the watch of adults who expected obedience. She said that she could imagine being given a banned substance without her knowledge and that she wouldn’t have dared refuse if she had known.
“If they said, ‘Here, this is a vitamin,’ I would have believed them,” said Moceanu, whose coach, Bela Karolyi, churned out Olympic champions through a rigid training program much like that used by Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze. “What they said is what we did, and if you defied it at all, you would be in big trouble.”
But Moceanu also said letting Valieva compete was unfair to other athletes.
“Everybody has to have the same rules,” she said. “This is going to open a whole can of worms for cheating, and it’s really unfortunate because minors are stuck in the middle of it all.”