One question lingered at the Capital Indoor Stadium as Kamila Valieva’s head sank towards her ankles, the tear ducts refused to shut and the Olympic dream of the greatest female skater in history came tumbling horribly to earth. Was all this really worth it? The trials and global tumult of the past week were already far beyond what any 15-year-old should have to bear. Yet Thursday’s free skate programme somehow heaped fresh indignities – and fears for the Russian’s situation.
When the haunting strains of Ravel’s Bolero rang out to start her free skating routine, Valieva had the Winter Olympic figure skating title on the tip of her blades. But under the severest scrutiny, she found herself unable to weave her usual spell. She fell twice – first on a quad toe loop and triple toe loop combination, and then again on another quad toe loop combination – and the crowd gasped and gasped again. It was almost as if a doppelgänger had been flown in from outer Siberia.
To make matters worse after enduring the longest four minutes and 20 seconds of her life, Valieva then had her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, barking in her ear. “Why did you let it go?” she demanded. “Explain to me, why. Why did you stop fighting? You let it go after that axel. Why?”
Tutberidze, whose training methods are as brutal as her success is undeniable, has a nickname: Cruella de Vil. This, though, was a moment for a comforting hug, not an audition for a role as a Hollywood super villain. What made all this even more painful is that Valieva had been leading after Tuesday’s short programme. Yet her free skating routine was so uncharacteristically off kilter it saw her drop to fourth with an overall score of 224.09.
One of the crueller ironies here is that when the court of arbitration for sport decided earlier this week to allow her to continue to compete in Beijing, despite a positive drugs test for a banned angina drug, it had done so in order to prevent “irreparable emotional harm”. So much for that.
Under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, Valieva is supposed to be a “protected athlete” because of her age. But that idea is meaningless when the people closest to her aren’t doing any of the protecting.
After her routine, Valieva spent several minutes in the kiss and cry booth, unable to comprehend what had happened. She was far from alone. Meanwhile, metres away from her, another extraordinary scene played out as two other Russian prodigies, who are also coached by Tutberidze, reacted to winning gold and silver.
Until last week, no female skater had done a quad in Olympic competition, but then the 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova performed five of them in a routine of astonishing pyrotechnics to score 251.73 points overall. Many thought it was enough for gold given that the world champion, Anna Shcherbakova, also 17, only landed two quads. However, the judges ruled that Shcherbakova’s combined score from Tuesday’s short programme and Thursday’s ’s free skate was worth 4.22 points more.
Trusova was understandably upset – and then some. “Everyone has a gold medal, everyone, but not me,” she screamed. “I hate skating. I hate it. I hate this sport. I will never go out on the ice again! Never! I hate! It’s impossible, it’s impossible! You can not do it this way.”
Later, she appeared to calm down slightly – although the residual anger towards her coach, who had only wanted her to do four quads, and the judges remained. “I am not happy with the result,” she explained. “There is no happiness. Everything was enough for me. I did everything. And after, it is out of my hands.”
Meanwhile, Shcherbakova was altogether less emotional as she tried to make sense of an extraordinary week for her and Russian skating on and off the ice. “I’m just happy,” she said. “No more emotions. I still don’t understand what happened. I can’t believe that the Olympic Games are over for me.”
She also offered some kind words for Valieva, her training partner and compatriot, although she refused to comment on her continuing drugs case. “I was watching Kamila and from her first jump I saw how difficult it was for her, what a burden it was, and I understand what an athlete feels,” she explained. “It is more than difficult to go on after a couple of things like that and I will tell her afterwards what I think personally.”
Sadly Valieva’s pain is not yet over. She now faces months of limbo while her positive test for trimetazidine, a drug typically described for patients suffering from angina, is resolved in the courts. It is possible that she still might escape an anti-doping ban, which would enable her to pick up the gold medal she helped the Russian Olympic Committee win in last week’s team event.
Hours before the astonishing finale of the single skating competition, the president of the ROC promised to fight any efforts to take that gold away, even if Valieva is eventually disqualified for doping.
The ROC’s president, Stanislav Pozdnyakov, insisted that the anti-doping rules were written in such a way that a review of results in a team event would only take place if the alleged anti-doping violation had been committed during the Olympic Games.“We will defend this position consistently in any possible proceedings, including in the court of arbitration for sport,” he said.
Those comments will upset a great many countries and a great many skaters. But they will, at least, provide Valieva with a degree of hope. And that was an element otherwise missing on a painful and chaotic night in Beijing.