At the start, a stumble. At the end, tears. In between, another brush with perfection.
And somehow, after a week of extraordinary personal tumult and torment, the 15-year-old Kamila Valieva did what she has been trained to do since she began skating at three: deliver when it matters.
Despite the positive drugs test. Despite the intense media scrutiny. Despite staying up at 3am to follow her court of arbitration for sport appeal hearing before a late reprieve. She still delivered.
At the halfway stage of the women’s single skating competition, Valieva leads with a score of 82.16, just under two points clear of her compatriot Anna Shcherbakova. But a question lingered at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium like a pungent smell. Should she be here at all following her positive test for the banned angina drug trimetazidine?
The US coach Adam Rippon, who won Olympic bronze four years ago and now coaches Valieva’s competitor Mariah Bell, was the most vocal critic. “I don’t know how the Olympics recovers from this,” he said. “It is shocking and it is disappointing. I don’t think ever in the history of the Olympics somebody with a positive test has been allowed to compete.”
Like many, he expressed sympathy for Valieva – before suggesting her entourage, led by her coach Eteri Tutberidze, was to blame. “All of our hearts are breaking that this is a 15-year-old girl,” he said. “It feels like she was taken advantage of and given this drug that she had no business taking.”
Then came a twirl of the knife. “What this says is that the team around her are child abusers,” Rippon said. “The only thing they care about is performance, and not the health and well being of their athletes. They are a factory that pumps out children who can compete, up to a certain point. It doesn’t feel like the coaches involved in the ladies’ program are coaches at all, but dog trainers; they’re running a circus. They shouldn’t be here at the Olympic Games. They’re clowns.”
On Saturday Tutberidze had said the situation was “very controversial and difficult” but added: “I want to say that I am absolutely sure that Kamila is innocent and clean.”
Rippon’s words were striking, but they did not exist in a vacuum. Long before Valieva stepped so gracefully on to the ice, the British skater Nastasha McKay was asked about the Russian being allowed to compete.
McKay is usually so diplomatic she could easily find a job in the foreign office. Not this time. “I wish it was a level playing field and it’s not,” she replied.
When invited to express sympathy for Valieva, she preferred to devote her words to those she felt deserved it. “I have sympathy for whoever will be on the podium who won’t be receiving their medals,” she said. “It’s the most important part of the Olympics and they won’t get that chance.”
Soon after the Swedish skater Josefin Taljegard made a similar point, albeit more subtly. “I think fair play is important,” she said. “Something inside me thinks it’s sad. I try to be a good role model. I just want everyone to know that figure skating is a lovely sport. These negative things take away from that.”
Neither Valieva nor Tutberidze stopped to speak to the world’s press after competing. But Shcherbakova, who is also coached by Tutberidze, did. When asked by the Guardian about her coach’s methods, she mounted a qualified defence.
“I have been in her group since I was nine,” she said. “And, if I am not changing my coach, it means that I like this coach. We are very fruitful working together, we are achieving a lot as you can see. And I believe this speaks more than words.”
Earlier on Tuesday it emerged that Valieva’s team had suggested that her positive drugs test may have come from a contaminated glass of water that contained traces of her grandfather’s heart medication.
The International Olympic Committee member Denis Oswald confirmed the 15-year-old Russian’s explanation for her positive test was “contamination, which happened with a product her grandfather was taking”.
The Russian newspaper Pravda said Valieva’s lawyer Anna Kozmenko made a similar argument at a Cas hearing on Sunday.
“There can be completely different ways how it got into her body,” Kozmenko is reported to have said. “For example, grandfather drank something from a glass, saliva got in, this glass was somehow later used by an athlete. Or the drug lay down on some surface, traces remained, the drug lay down on this surface, which the athlete then drank.”
That explanation certainly raised plenty of eyebrows here in Beijing. But at the same time, some of the more excitable criticism of Cas’s decision to allow Valieva to compete does not seem justified either.
Neither Valieva nor Russia have received a diamanté-emblazoned get-out-of-jail-free card. She still has to face justice for her failed drugs test. Cas’s decision is a stay of execution, not a pardon.
But the overriding image of this night was of Valieva, with the world’s gaze and pressure weighing down on her, once again showing the talent that many think makes her the best female skater in history.
True, it wasn’t a perfect routine. No sooner had the opening bars of In Memoriam by Kirill Richter ended than Valieva wobbled and came dangerously close to falling on her first jump, the triple axel. Yet she was able to refocus and scored top marks on her remaining elements.
Valieva rightly now goes into Thursday’s free skating programme as a huge favourite for gold. The tragedy for her is that the chances of an Olympic medal around her neck hang increasingly by a sequin’s thread.