Every athlete grows up dreaming of standing on an Olympic podium, with a medal around their neck.
For a moment in 2022, American figure skater Vincent Zhou thought he was living that dream at the Winter Games in Beijing, before it all turned into a nightmare.
Shortly after winning a silver medal in the team event on the ice, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was escorted to quarantine. That meant he was forced to withdraw from the men’s skating competition and barred from participating in the Closing Ceremony.
He tried to process the swirl of emotions in a video message that he posted on social media, saying at the time, “I’ve already lost count of the number of times I’ve cried today, but I’m happy to say that at least one of those times was happy tears. That was when I found out that I became an Olympic silver medalist.”
Despite his profound disappointment, the then 21-year-old concluded that all his dedication and sacrifice since the age of five had been worth it.
“To the future Vincent watching this, your younger self would be so proud of the athlete and person you’ve become now … You know why? Because you lived out your dreams. You became the person you always aspired to be,” Zhou said in his video message.
However, those dreams did not play out as he would have imagined. He’s never seen, held, or worn the medal that he worked so hard to attain.
The only tangible reward for performing as one of the best athletes in the world was an empty box, which was handed to him before leaving China.
“Testing positive and missing the individual event was already surreal enough,” Zhou told CNN Sport. “But then layers of complexity and absurdity kept on being added to the situation.
“I don’t think any of us thought that it would take this long to resolve what was a seemingly black and white case, but here we are. And it still feels every bit as surreal as it did on day one.”
The Americans had finished second to a team of skaters competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee, a consequence of Russia’s brazen state-sponsored doping scandal which had marred the Sochi Games in 2014.
But after the event, it transpired that one of Russia’s biggest stars in Beijing, 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva, had tested positive for the use of a banned substance during a previous competition.
The medal ceremony was hastily postponed and instead, the skaters from Russia, the US and the bronze medalists from Japan, posed for the cameras holding only the official plush mascots of the Games.
According to US Figure Skating, it’s the only time in the history of the modern Olympics that athletes were not awarded their medals on site.
Valieva has claimed that her positive test for trimetazidine, a heart medication which can also boost endurance, had been ingested accidentally.
A year later, after a protracted investigation, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) effectively cleared her of any wrongdoing, saying that while Valieva had violated anti-doping rules, she bore no ‘fault or negligence’ for the transgression.
Given their track record, RUSADA’s decision was appealed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Skating Union (ISU) and even a portion of the decision was appealed by RUSADA itself. The case is now being considered by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne.
While they were still in Beijing, Zhou recalled that the American athletes met with team liaisons from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), who outlined the situation from an administrative and legal perspective.
“Obviously, not much was known at that time,” Zhou explains, “but we walked out of that meeting with a promise of goodwill and a promise that the issue would be resolved as quickly as possible.” Zhou adds he assumes that the Japanese skaters were having similar conversations.
However, in the 19 months since the Games, Zhou says the athletes feel as though they’ve been forgotten.
“We haven’t been told anything by the governing bodies and the organizations who are in power and responsible for making actual tangible decisions,” said Zhou. “All the communication we’ve gotten are the press releases that anybody who has internet access can read, so we don’t know any more than you do.”
In his statement released through the athletes’ advocacy group, Global Athlete, Zhou was highly critical of the IOC, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and CAS.
Rob Koehler, Global Athlete’s Director General, is also critical of the USOPC. “It’s surprising,” he told CNN. “They haven’t really stood up for their athletes.”
Koehler believes the reason is that national sports organizations value their athletes less than they do their relationships with other governing bodies.
“The athletes are expendable, but the partnerships with the international federations and the IOC are not, so they toe the party line,” said Koehler. “They don’t want to upset their friends above them; they don’t want to make any waves or upset anybody.”
The USOPC didn’t respond to CNN’s request for comment, but US Figure Skating said that it’s tried to advocate for its athletes.