While 30 women competed in the Beijing Olympics women’s figure skating short program on Feb. 15, all the attention was on one woman.
Or technically one teenager—15-year-old Kamila Valieva from Russia. Valieva tested positive for a banned substance, yet an arbitration court determined that she could continue competing at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Valieva’s case, which has dominated Olympic and figure skating news since it broke during the first week of the Games, is already altering the women’s event. If Valieva earns a medal after the free program, scheduled for Feb. 17, no medals will be awarded for any of the top three, pending an ongoing investigation of her doping case. Already, the medals ceremony for the team event, in which Valieva participated and helped the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) team earn gold, has been delayed indefinitely for the same reason. In addition, while normally the top 24 skaters after the short program would move on to the free program final, skating officials allowed the top 25 women to compete in the free program, which would allow all of the skaters to move up a spot if Valieva, who finished in first after the short program, were later disqualified.
“It’s absolutely a dark cloud over the event,” Adam Rippon, Olympic bronze medalist and now a coach for American skater Mariah Bell, tells TIME. “It’s incredibly distracting for all of these athletes, whether they speak up about it or not. It’s looming in the air.”
Adding to the spectacle, in the hours before the event began, the International Olympic Committee’s chair of the disciplinary commission said that during the hearing that determined Valieva could compete, her lawyer argued, “There can be completely different ways how it got into her body,” and claimed that Valieva could have been contaminated with the medication from her grandfather. “For example, her grandfather drank something from a glass, some saliva got in, this glass was somehow later used by the athlete. Or the drug was laid down on some surface, traces remained, the drug lay down on this surface, which the athlete then drank.”
That hearing was held by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Feb. 14, which determined, in part due to Valieva’s lawyer’s arguments, that Valieva should be allowed to compete despite the failed drug test.
The Russian teen, who trains at the controversial school in Moscow headed by coach Eteri Tutberidze, is favored to win gold in the event, which concludes with the free program on Feb. 17. She already made history as the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, during the team event last week. But that feat has been overshadowed by her positive test for a banned substance.
Still, the IOC determined that if Valieva places in the top three after the free program, they would cancel the medals ceremony until the details of her failed drug test are investigated, including the role that the adults on her team might have played because she is younger than 16, which could take weeks or months.
“That’s your answer right there,” says Rippon about the IOC decision. “It’s clear as day that they don’t think her performances are clean. This is point blank a positive test. There is zero tolerance for performance-enhancing drugs in sport. Zero tolerance. The Russians get away with this all the time. They shouldn’t be here. They shouldn’t be here at the Olympic Games. They’re clowns.”
As Valieva warmed up, NBC commentator Tara Lipinski expressed what many skaters are feeling, conveying disbelief that Valieva was still competing, and reiterating her belief that with a doping violation, she should not be still competing at the Olympics. “It’s putting a permanent scar on our sport,” said Lipinski, who was also upset that because of the pending case, skaters earning an Olympic medal would be denied the once-in-a-lifetime experience of receiving their medal and honoring their lifetime of work.
That was the sentiment running through the entire women’s short program—the Olympic experience for the 30 women competing will forever be tarnished by the cloud of doping hanging over the event. Alluding to the doping controversy, Bell told NBC her goal for the short program was to skate a clean program and to skate cleanly.
It was a nearly three-hour wait until Valieva, the 26th skater, took to the ice. With Russian athletes in the stands applauding her, Valieva launched tilted into the air on her opening jump, a triple Axel, and had to put her hand down on the landing. After striking her final pose, the emotions of the past week likely caught up with the teen, and she broke down in tears before leaving the ice. The normally loquacious Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who strongly feel Valieva should not be competing, provided minimum commentary, and following Valieva’s skate, Weir said, “All I can say is that was the Olympic short program from Kamila Valieva.” It was enough to put her in first, but with the asterisk that most skaters and skating officials, believed she should not be competing at all.
Valieva walked past the gaggle of reporters in the mixed zone, declining to be interviewed, and the ROC did not make her available for the press conference involving the top three finishers. Medal winners are required to attend press conferences, but the press conferences are not mandatory for non-medal events.
Her teammate Anna Shcherbakova, who trains at the same rink, finished in second with a clean program that highlighted her natural artistic abilities. “From the first pose to the end, I controlled everything—every jump and every spin,” she said. “While I was skating, I realized this was the Olympic Games so I didn’t try to forget [that], and as I was thinking about this, I think it helped me.” While she was the only woman on the Russian squad to not perform a triple Axel, the world silver medalist earned higher program components scores, for skating skills and performance, than her teammate Alexandra Trusova, who finished in fourth after falling on a triple Axel. When asked about how the doping violation is affecting her teammate Valieva, and the other Russian skaters, Shcherbakova replied, in English, “I will not say anything about the situation, sorry.”
Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto proved to be the spoiler to the ROC team’s plan to sweep the top three spots in both the short and free programs. Sakamoto, the Japanese national champion, who finished sixth at the last Olympics, skated a clean and confident program, adding up points in skating skills and performance to make up for the fact that she did not include a triple Axel in her program. It was enough to land her in third, sandwiched between the Russian women, which is where she belongs, says Rippon. “Kaori and [teammate Wakaba Higuchi] were to me the class of the event. “They have the ideal skating skills, and incredible performance quality.”
As with so many skaters competing in Beijing, Sakamota struggled to express how she felt about skating in an event with an athlete who failed a drug test. Asked if she felt any sympathy for Valieva, and the chaotic media attention surrounding her, Sakamoto said through a translator, “Do I feel sorry for her? I don’t think so, I wouldn’t say so. It’s difficult to express myself. I’m focusing on the sport, on the competition. At the moment I’m trying not to think about things like that. There were moments when I was thinking, ‘what was happening?’ But it’s important to focus on my performance on the Olympic stage, and how I can perform best.”
The three U.S. women finished in the top 12. California native Alysa Liu, the only American capable of landing a triple Axel, decided to stick with a double Axel instead, after struggling with the jump this season. Liu, who won her first senior national championship at age 13 with a triple Axel and a stunning array of other triple jumps, has grown several inches in the past two years and hasn’t been as consistent in landing them. Opting for the double Axel cost her a minimum of 4.7 points, since the triple has a starting value of 8.0 and the double a 3.3, and it showed in the standings. Liu ended up eighth, behind skaters, including Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi, Korea’s You Young, Valieva and Alexandra Trusova from Russia, who landed the triple Axel. Liu’s triple Lutz-triple toe loop combination, the same performed by all three Russian women, didn’t earn as many points for execution as did the Russians, likely because while clean, the jumps lacked speed and flow.
Liu, who changed coaches twice in as many years, the last time just months before the Games, said “I’m pretty happy with how I did. I didn’t fall, so I’m happy about that for the short. Basically all of my training all this time was to get to the Olympics. Now my dreams have basically come true.”
U.S. National Champion Mariah Bell, who won that title for the first time in January, included a lower-scoring jump combination in her program. With Rippon cheering from the sidelines, and new Olympic gold medalist Nathan Chen and training mate waving an American flag in the stands, Bell fell on the second jump of her combination to place 11th. “That first combination is something she doesn’t do very consistently,” Rippon says. “But she needs it to stay in the mix and stay in the competition even if she falls on it. It was 50-50 whether she was going to hit it or not in the event. But I was really happy with the attack she had today. No regrets or wishing she had tried harder. ” Bell agreed. “I was pretty disappointed with the opening element but I had a really good time,” she said. “It’s the Olympics and I’m here, excited to be here and excited for the long [program] now.”
Karen Chen, skating the final group with all three Russian women, opened well with a strong triple Lutz-triple toe loop jump combination, but fell on her final jump, a triple loop, and finished behind her teammates in 13th. “I’m definitely beating myself up over [the jump],” she said. “I know I can do it, I’ve done it so many times. I just have to flip a new page and say ‘OK that happened and now just move forward and see what I can do to be better.”
The uncertainty surrounding the women’s event, given the outcome of Valieva’s doping case, will only escalate as the top 25 skaters compete in the free program. “Honestly, she doesn’t belong in the event,” Rippon says, voicing what many skaters are feeling, even if they can’t be as vocal as he is. “She should be wearing vinyl gloves if she is so sensitive to every drug that could be on a table. It’s so ridiculous. [The Russian] team doesn’t belong here. They will cheat over and over and over. It’s the principle that there are no repercussions [for doping]. It sucks. ”
Entering the event, many assumed they would have a slim chance of making the podium given the dominance of the Russian team. But with the revelation that Valieva failed a drug test, the door is open again. The women just have to skate through it.
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