Kamila Valieva and Zhu Yi are victims in Winter Olympics’ puppet theatre of pain | Barney Ronay

Zhu’s haunting yet disastrous skate was the most heartbreaking story of the Beijing Games until Valieva’s failed drugs test

Earlier this week the Winter Olympic skating finals dished up one the most heartbreaking things you’ll ever see in sport.

Zhu Yi is a 19-year-old Chinese figure skater. She was born and raised in California, and called Beverley Zu until she switched allegiance to her parents’ homeland four years ago. The day before Zhu had skated in the women’s short programme team event. It was a disaster.

She’d fallen on her first jump, crashed into a wall, and finished 10th in a field of 10. True to a discipline that is always poised on the edge of some horribly poignant collapse, she’d done all of this to the sounds of Mick Jagger singing about flowers, girls dressed in their summer clothes and a cloud of toxic black despair consuming all human hope.

Zhu had been inconsolable afterwards. She was duly scorned and ridiculed overnight on Chinese mainstream and social media (“Zhu Yi has Fallen” was trending on Weibo), with some casting her selection ahead of an “authentic” Chinese skater as an affront. And Zhu looked horribly bruised and fragile at the start of Monday’s free skate, as she paused, took a breath, tiny in all that cold hard space, and immediately fell over again.

Then she fell over again, landing splayed on her knee. At which point, with the day melting around her, she just had to carry on, this slight, tearful human in hopeful red weeds weeping along to her own routine as Sunset Boulevard soared and trilled.

There were levels to this horribly tender theatre of pain. Towards the end something else began to happen. Zhu began to express her sorrow through her movements, horror seeping in to that perky choreography, because for all its craft this is a discipline the athletes feel.

There were melancholic turns and heartbreaking shimmies. She ended with a series of sweeps, all stricken grace, then just kind of collapsed, gloved hands raised to her face. It felt as though three kinds of cruelty had collided here: the basic cruelty of elite sport; the cruelty of our shared digital world; and above all that hard, deathly quality that lurks behind these industrialised propaganda circuses.

And yet in the middle of all this there was still that unplanned element of beauty, the spectacle of Zhu Yi painting it black. This was supposed to be the most heartbreaking story of the week in figure skating. It remained that way until Thursday morning.

Zhu Yi of China looks pained after her performance
Zhu Yi ended with a series of sweeps, all stricken grace, then just kind of collapsed, gloved hands raised to her face. Photograph: Richard Ellis/UPI/Shutterstock

At which point another competitor, Kamila Valieva, found herself on the wrong end of the machine in a way that could provide its own deeply troubling tagline to these Olympics. It has now been confirmed that the delay to Tuesday’s team event medal ceremony was due to a failed drug test; and that the athlete concerned was Valieva, part of the Russian Olympic Committee’s brilliant gold medal-winning team.

Valieva is 15 years old. She may already be, according to those who know this sport intimately, the greatest figure skater of all time. The initial finding is she tested positive before the Games for a banned drug used to treat coronary artery disease. The court of arbitration for sport will convene at the request of the World Anti-Doping Agency after Russia’s anti-doping committee lifted a provisional ban. No medical reason for the finding nor any medical exemption has yet been offered.

There is no shortage of precedent for sweepings-under-the-carpet in such cases, some a lot closer to home. But should the positive test be confirmed (as a doping violation) the gold will go to the US, so no hard feelings there. And it is a mind‑boggling story on so many levels, Ben Johnson on ice with a helping of neo-cold war politics.

A confirmed drug scandal of this scale would put a fist right through China’s Games, and do so at a time when the spectacle has basically become the Xi-Putin show, a summit on the sidelines to a soundtrack of shifting tectonic plates and pistols drawn at the border posts.

What stands out for now is the basic cruelty here. This process automatically casts the athlete as the villain. Valieva will be banned, Valieva asterisked in the annals. But Valieva is also a child. If she was given a performance-enhancing drug then what we’re talking about here is abuse, an offence committed against Valieva not by her.

The more urgent questions should be addressed to her coach Eteri Tutberidze of the high-functioning Sambo-70 school in Sochi, where very young children are taught to push their bodies to the limits, to live off “powdered nutrients”, to burn briefly as child‑puppet athletes in pursuit of that sweet, sweet, physically ruinous power-to-weight ratio.

Valieva can do these extraordinary things. She is the holder of eight world record scores and an almost unbroken run of competitive golds. Mainly, though, it’s all about the performance. She came out last in the free skate, half an hour after Zhu, and danced to Boléro wearing leg-warmers.

It was visceral stuff. She reeled off a triple axel and it didn’t feel like a planned technical element, more that weird thing these athletic superstars do where they seem to pause the moment, bending space and time to their will, reaching out into the higher human registers of balance and grace.

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There was so much content in the routine, so much surplus brilliance, Valieva could even fall over and spring up without it seeming to matter much. At the end she was utterly spent, although that state of extreme exhaustion suddenly feels a little uncomfortable.

And right now Zhu and Valieva, first and last in the same field, both look like victims, collateral human damage in the game of sport as geopolitics, sport as toxic global circus.

The after-drama is yet to play itself out. But there is a kind of zugzwang here. There is no happy way for Valieva’s situation to resolve itself; and no outcome that doesn’t leave the Olympic Games looking just a little bit more rotten.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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