The women’s figure skating event at the 2022 Winter Olympics was supposed to be a coronation, a milestone event showcasing a trio of talented Russian skaters who had a realistic chance of sweeping the Olympic podium for the first time in Olympic history.
Instead, while there were tears, they weren’t tears of joy but tears of utter devastation. Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old who was favored to win the gold, tested positive for a banned substance but was allowed to compete anyway. The controversy over that decision and pressure on the young teen as all eyes focused on her and the entire world questioned her abilities, took their toll as she fell on three of her seven jumping passes and ended up in fourth place.
Her teammate, Anna Shcherbakova, who skated a clean and tremendous free program to earn gold, hardly looked like a newly crowned Olympic champion as she stood alone backstage, hugging a stuffed animal, for several minutes while the officials from the entire Russian skating team focused on comforting Valieva, who began sobbing in the kiss and cry after seeing her scores and realizing she was in fourth place, off the Olympic podium on which she was expected to stand atop.
Valieva and Shcherbakova’s teammate Alexandra Trusova, who trains at the same Moscow school, won silver. Trusova also dissolved in tears, saying over and over “I can’t watch this,” but her tears, she explained later, had more to do with her standings. Minutes later, she cried “I won’t go, I won’t go,” to the mascot ceremony at center ice, until her coach Eteri Tutberidze finally convinced her to skate out. At the press conference afterward, she said “I did what I could. I am not happy with the result. Why I was angry, why I was disappointed — for the first time I skated with five quadruples, I waited for this moment for a long time.” Trusova won the free program, but since the overall results combine the short, in which she was fourth, and free program scores, she ended up in second for the silver. In the past, Trusova has expressed frustration with her sport and the judging, and elaborated in Beijing by saying “I was trying to achieve some lofty goals, to have more quadruple jumps. When I will do this, I would win, I thought. But well, this was not happening for a long time. That’s how it is.”
The outpouring of emotion was only the latest turn in the roller coaster of the past week for the skaters, who have been competing as sports officials, fans and athletes have weighed in on whether Valieva should have been allowed to compete in Beijing after her failed drug test was revealed. Given the emotional outcome, 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes tweeted, “This is a time for reevaluating how things are done.”
Shcherbakova wins gold and Valieva misses the podium
In the hallway leading to the rink at Capital Indoor Stadium, all skaters walk past a bulletin board that now holds an announcement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). It states that if Valieva finished in the top three, there would be no medals awarded in the women’s event.
It was a physical reminder, as if the competitors needed one, of the unprecedented situation in which they found themselves. Valieva was expected to finish among the top three, prompting the IOC’s decision about postponing the medals ceremony. But regardless of where Valieva finished, the IOC also allowed an extra skater to compete in the free program, on the assumption that if Valieva’s doping violation case, which is still being reviewed, determines that she should be disqualified, then all the skaters would move up a spot.
Instead, the 15-year old skated what was probably the most error-filled program of her young career. In sharp contrast to the confident, controlled skater the world saw in the team event last week, before the news of her doping violation was made public, Valieva struggled to make it through each element, stumbling out of her first jump, a triple Axel, and putting her hand down on the ice to steady herself just as she did in the short program. Then she stepped out of her quadruple toe loop and fell on the triple toe loop in the combination, leading to another fall in the next jump combination. Valieva threw her hands up in frustration at the end of the program, before skating back to the kiss and cry and breaking down in tears. After finishing first in the short program, Valieva was fifth in the free, leading to her overall fourth place standing in the competition
She and her teammates, who train at the same Moscow skating school, were the only women in the competition attempting quadruple jumps. Trusova, the bronze medalist from the European championships, already made history as the first woman to land a number of different quadruple jumps and made it her mission to match the men in the sport by landing five quadruples using four different types of jumps in her free program at an Olympics, as Nathan Chen did when winning his gold. She succeeded, landing her five quadruple jumps but stepping out of one of them and having her last attempt downgraded for being under-rotated. While her program components scores were considerably lower than those of the Japanese and Korean skaters, her high-scoring jumps were enough to surge her more than 30 points ahead of the field before her Russian teammates competed.
But technical skills aren’t the only part of the score, and Trusova’s teammate Anna Shcherbakova showed why. Shcherbakova included only two quadruple jumps in her free program, and unlike Trusova, stuck with one type, the flip, but impressed the judges more with her skating skills, presentation, and interpretation of the music. It was enough to score 4.22 points above Trusova to earn gold. Her Olympic win is all the more impressive, not just given the circumstances surrounding Valieva, but also because Shcherbakova has been struggling with boot problems in Beijing, and is breaking in a new pair at the Games. Still, she felt understandably conflicted about her achievement, given the circumstances. “I still don’t comprehend what happened,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed that it happened on one hand, on the other hand I feel emptiness inside.”
Team USA women finish in top 20
The American women finished in the top 20. Karen Chen, who ended her second Olympics in 16th place, continued to struggle with the triple loop jump; it’s been her most inconsistent jump throughout the team competition and short program as well. During her free program, she put her hand down on the first attempt and fell on the second.
U.S. national champion Mariah Bell pushed through a few shaky landings but managed to pull off a clean program, minus her planned triple-triple jump combination, which pushed her down in the standings to 10th, despite an emotional skate to K. D. Lang’s “Hallelujah. “You were not going to let anything go,” her coach Adam Rippon told her as she left the ice. “I need a drink!”
Alysa Liu, the only member of Team USA who included a triple Axel in her program, did land it, but it was underrotated, meaning she completed the last part of the 3.5 revolutions on the ice, so only received points for a double Axel. She’s been struggling with the jump throughout the season and fell on one attempt during the warm-up before landing one later. The year Liu won her first national championship, at age 13, Liu became the first U.S. woman to land a quadruple jump in competition, but has since grown several inches and struggled to retain her early jumping skills. Without the points from the triple Axel, Liu was unable to crack the top five and finished seventh as the three Russian women, two Japanese women, and South Korea’s Young You, who earned more points for her program components, surpassed her.
Lost amid the focus on the fallout from the Russian women was the bronze medal won by Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, who finished sixth at the last Olympics and now returns home with a medal.
An Olympic event overshadowed by doping controversy
Sakamoto’s moment, however, was sadly overshadowed by the drama occurring with the Russian squad, including the week-long pressure cooker of the event as the skating community has been up in arms over the fact that Valieva was allowed to compete despite the failed drug test. The decision was made by an independent sports arbitration court, but was almost universally criticized by past Olympians, including NBC commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who called Valevea’s presence in the competition a “slap in the face” to the clean athletes and to the Olympic movement. 2014 Olympian in figure skating Polina Edmunds tweeted “If you’re taking [a performance-enhancing drug] long term from an early age, think about how many more hours you can train, more reps you can do, more run-throughs, etc. You’d get quicker results at a much faster rate than a clean athlete.”
“The doping rules are there and something we all know we have to follow to protect the integrity of the sport,” two-time ice dance Olympic gold medalist Scott Moir tells TIME. “And it’s hasn’t been protected here in my opinion.”
While medals were ultimately awarded in the women’s event, the controversy over Valieva’s case is far from over. The investigation into her positive test continues, and the medals for the team event still hinge on the outcome of that review.
The unfolding scandal reveals a weakness in the Olympic system and its pursuit of clean sport. While anti-doping rules are in place, and the punishments for athletes who violate them are clear, ultimately the enforcement falls largely to different countries’ anti-doping agencies. And those agencies have different thresholds of tolerance for violations, as Valieva’s case reveals. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency suspended the skater but then lifted that suspension; in contrast, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency prevented sprinter Sha-Carri Richardson from competing at the Tokyo Olympics last summer when she tested positive for marijuana.
In addition, for athletes in a judged sport like figure skating, there is the fear that speaking out about what they feel are improper decisions about doping could end up hurting them in their scores. That could explain why the skaters in Beijing declined to answer the flood of media questions about how they felt about the fairness of Valieva competing. In a way, however, their silence could be perpetuating the problem. If the athletes aren’t voicing their thoughts on the importance of clean sport and competing clean, then where does the pressure to enforce doping rules come from? Without demanding accountability, why would authorities take sanctions and enforcement seriously? Taking a stance that all athletes should be competing clean and that officials should enforce rules that doped athletes should be suspended and prevented from competing, is hardly controversial. It’s the rules.
“I personally don’t understand why athletes are scared to speak up,” Olympic swimmer Lilly King, tells TIME. King, who openly criticized Russian competitors who tested positive for banned substances, says “unlike other issues we are currently dealing with in the world of sports, this one is very black and white. I can understand not wanting to get involved while competing at the Olympics — it’s already the most pressure-filled situation and you don’t need to make it more stressful than it needs to be. But I’m always going to be one to stick up for clean sport, and clean athletes. I will never really understand people who aren’t saying anything.”
King admits that she was in a similar situation to that of the skaters during the Rio Olympics, when the positive test of her Russian competitor was revealed. Initially, she was not going to address it, but was caught on camera in the ready room wagging her finger at the screen when her competitor touched the wall first in her semi-final and waved her finger in a #1 gesture. King was unaware she was being filmed, but said she decided not to back down from explaining her response. “I realized I was caught up in this, and I was not going to skirt around the answer, but I was just going to come out and say it, ‘You were caught drug cheating and I’m not a fan.'”
The emotional experience of the women’s figure skating event in Beijing will leave a lasting scar on every skater who competed in the event, beginning with Valieva, who will now have to find a way to recover from the mental turmoil of the past week. It should serve as a lesson for doping authorities—enforce anti-doping rules and ensure that violators are punished appropriately.
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