A Winter Olympics that was farcical, disturbing and often exceptional | Sean Ingle

The soul-destroying story of the young Russian skater Kamila Valieva will stick in the memory for all the wrong reasons

At the end of a Winter Olympics like no other, moments before a furious barrage of fireworks tattooed the Beijing skyline, the German president of the International Olympic Committee gave an extraordinarily upbeat assessment of these Games.

“The Olympic spirit could only shine so brightly because the Chinese people set the stage in such an excellent way – and in a safe way,” Thomas Bach said. “The Olympic villages were outstanding. The venues – magnificent. The organisation – extraordinary. On behalf of the best winter sport athletes of the world, I say: Thank you, our Chinese friends!”

It had been, Bach added, a “truly exceptional” Winter Games. Exceptional? Yes. But in myriad ways: good and bad.

However, if there is a lasting requiem to these Games, it was soundtracked by Kirill Richter’s enchanting melody In Memoriam, the music to which the 15-year-old skater Kamila Valieva leapt and spun, performing the first quad in Olympic history during the team event.

It was the Russian’s calling card to the world. Another came less than 48 hours later when she failed a drugs test for the banned heart medication TMZ. What followed was one of the most extraordinary – and desperate weeks – in Olympic history. By turns Valieva was vilified, hounded, supported, temporarily reprieved by the court of arbitration for sport and then – with the eyes of the world boring down on her in the individual event – her world finally fell apart.

She fell twice. Departed the ice in tears. And then another twist of the knife as her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, lashed out at her. As a spectacle it was compelling, appalling and utterly sad.

Not since Ben Johnson tested positive at the Seoul Games in 1988 has a drugs scandal so discombobulated our sensibilities; so shocked the world. This, after all, is a 15-year-old. She could never have acquired banned drugs by herself. Essentially it was cold abuse by a different name.

Another tragedy: Valieva, who is widely regarded as the greatest female skater the world has seen, will probably never compete in a Winter Olympics again.

She was not the only extraordinary story that night. The runner-up, Alexandra Trusova, performed five quads but still lost to another Russian, Anna Shcherbakova. “I hate skating. I hate it. I hate this sport,” she shouted afterwards. “I will never go out on the ice again!” It made Tonya and Nancy look tame.

It was the story of these Games and then some. However, Valieva’s drug case may not be settled for months and there was huge sympathy for the US and Japan teams that came second behind the Russian Olympic Committee in the team skating. They never got to enjoy their moment on the podium in Beijing.

Chatting to Max Cobb, the president and chief executive of US biathlon, reminded me over the weekend that this is not new. “Over the last three decades I have been a part of every Olympic Winter Games, as a coach, organiser or official,” he said. “Sadly, I have witnessed more than my fair share of doping scandals and what I can say with 100% certainty is that the athletes who were cheated were the last ones the system served.

“The victims were the biggest losers. Their moments of glory were stolen from them only to have scant recognition which in far too many instances came years later.”

The tears of Kamila Valieva were horrible to witness.
The tears of Kamila Valieva were horrible to witness. Photograph: Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Of course there were incredible sporting moments, too. For 16 years Lindsey Jacobellis was known as the snowboarder who was miles clear of the Turin 2006 Olympics board cross final – until she fell on the penultimate jump while showing off by taking a celebratory grab of her board. At the ripe old age of 36 she redeemed herself by winning two snowboard cross golds.

There was the heartache and bravery of Mikaela Shiffrin, who came into these Games hunting five medals but left with none – and yet still found time to speak powerfully about her loss to the media. The US figure skater Nathan Chen was extraordinary as he won Olympic gold. The Norwegian biathlete Johannes Thingnes Boe won four gold medals as his country dominated the medal table again.

But these Games will linger in the memory for other reasons, too – in particular the extraordinary closed-loop system, which meant that athletes, officials and journalists were not allowed any interaction with mainline China.

But such a policy, while immensely suffocating, was a success – at least to those who were not tripped by the sensitivity of the PCR tests. More than 1.8m tests were taken during the Games, with only 437 positives reported. However those who had to go to Chinese government isolation facilities faced a lonely and often terrifying experience.

Spare a thought for US figure skater Vincent Zhou, who was unable to collect his medal in the team event because of the Valieva case, then caught Covid and missed the individual event, and then was unable to attend the final night’s celebrations when recovered. “Before boarding the bus, they flagged me as a Covid ‘close contact’ risk and would not allow me to proceed any further. I have tested negative 14 days in a row,” he wrote. “I am 100% healthy and normal.” It wasn’t nearly as much fun as a normal Olympics.

However, China will be delighted with how these Games went. After all, these were an Olympics that began under a series of shadows: with spiky questions over human rights, particularly in the western Xinjiang region – where more than a million Uyghurs are in re-education camps – and the fate of the tennis player Peng Shuai.

But while these issues bubbled under, particularly when China chose the Uyghur cross-country skier Dinigeer Yilamujiang to light the flame, and when the Beijing spokesman Yan Jiarong claimed that “so-called forced labour” in the region was “lies” – they never dominated the discourse.

China also ended these Games third in the table with 15 medals, including nine golds. They would certainly have taken that beforehand. Notably at the closing ceremony their two biggest stars, the 18-year-olds Su Yiming and Eileen Gu, walked into the stadium together for the parade.

As they did so, Xi Jinping applauded in approval. And, if you looked closely, you could even detect a smile.

Contributor

Sean Ingle in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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