The scenes were surreal, full of the visceral pain of two Russian teenagers and the numbness of a third, flooded with the thunderous sobbing of a Japanese woman who is 21, all overcome by the swirling maelstrom that had enveloped the women’s singles event at the 2022 Winter Olympics for a week.
There was little joy in any of this when it ended Thursday in Beijing, not for the four skaters who were atop the standings, not for those who watched it, hopefully not for the officials who avoided yet another surreal moment only because a 15-year-old crumbled in front of the world.
No asterisks now will be necessary for the medal results. There will be a formal ceremony Friday in which Anna Shcherbakova of Russia will receive the gold, Aleksandra Trusova of Russia the silver, Kaori Sakamoto of Japan the bronze.
Kamila Valieva’s collapse in the free skate made it possible for the International Olympic Committee to continue as planned with the presentation, to pretend that there is something normal about a situation filled with ethical and procedural and judicial questions, many of which likely will not be answered for months, if at all.
All we know with certainty is that Valieva skated this week under the shadow of a positive doping test result and the weight of virtually universal agreement that her continued presence as an Olympic competitor was unfair to the other 29 skaters in the women’s field.
Valieva had been an utterly dominating skater the rest of the season. But she struggled uncharacteristically in winning Tuesday’s short program. Then she made mistake after mistake in Thursday’s free skate, five mistakes in all, two of them falls.
“I saw from her first jump how difficult it was, what a burden it was for her,” Shcherbakova said, through a translator, in answer to a question of whether she had words of sympathy for Valieva.
“I understand what an athlete feels. It’s more than difficult to go on to the end after a couple things like that happen. I will tell her what I think about this later.”
Valieva’s initial reaction at the end of her free skate was a flippant wave, as if to say to hell with everything. Tears followed, then more tears, then criticism rather than immediate consolation from her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. Television revealed Tutberidze calling out Valieva for giving up after a mistake on her second jumping pass, a triple axel.
Another woman wrapped her arms around the distraught Valieva after she left the ice and headed backstage. At the same time, Trusova, 17, who won the free skate, was crying and angrily yelling at Sergei Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team.
According to the Russian twitter account @figureskatingRu, Trusova said, “Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don't! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” A Russian speaker who watched video of the exchange on my behalf confirmed that translation.
The message was clear: Trusova was frustrated that making Olympic women’s history by doing five quadruple jumps, with three getting positive grades of execution, was not enough for her to win the gold medal. She would say at the medalists’ press conference, “I’m not happy with the result.”
If only the controversy here had just been about judging, which is a normal uproar in figure skating.
Shcherbakova, also 17, whose free skate was error-free, won with 255.95 points and a margin of 4.22. Sakamoto wound up 18.6 behind Trusova, and Valieva was 9.04 behind Sakamoto.
Trusova insisted “only emotions” led her to talk of leaving the sport. Yet she and Shcherbakova, both trained by Tutberidze, declined to commit to competing again.
Shcherbakova stood alone for several minutes after learning she had won, a time when the new champion should have been the jubilant center of attention. Her eyes were downcast, her demeanor emotionless.
Sakamoto’s tears looked a mixture of happiness over winning bronze, her first medal at a global championship, and relief over simply surviving the chaos. Her body shook as she wept.
Every twist and turn of how it came to this would demand the scope of an epic novel. The salient point is this: Valieva was able to keep competing at the Olympics despite a positive doping control from a test on Christmas Day because a Court of Arbitration for Sport panel rejected an appeal to prevent it.
Amidst a storm of condemnation that an athlete with a recent doping violation was not banned, the IOC roiled the waters further by deciding there would be no medals given for women’s singles during the Olympics if Valieva finished in the top three. An IOC spokesman said the results would carry an asterisk if that happened.
And then there are the medals for the team event, in which Valieva won both short and free as the Russian Olympic Committee finished first. The IOC said they too are being held in abeyance until Valieva’s doping case is adjudicated.
Under World Anti-Doping Agency rules, that judgment would involve testing a second part of her urine sample (they are divided into “A” and “B” parts at the testing lab). Then there could be appeals, appeals of appeals, appeals of appeals of appeals…
All that takes time. Had six weeks not passed between Valieva giving the sample that contained evidence of the banned drug, trimetazidine, and the day (Feb. 8) the Russian Anti-Doping Agency said it received the result, just after the team event, a mess in which everyone lost might have been avoided.
And what if it finally turns out, as unlikely as this is in doping cases, that Valieva’s “B” sample does not confirm the results of the “A”? Or that she can prove extenuating circumstances that mean she is not found guilty of a doping violation?
Will anyone take responsibility for procedural snafus that doubled the mandated time for reporting results, snafus that allowed Valieva’s case to overshadow not only the figure skating competition but the entire Olympics?
There is supposed to be an investigation of all these circumstances. The investigation also is to focus on how a 15-year-old wound up taking a banned substance prescribed for much older people with heart problems as well two other drugs not on the WADA banned list that sometimes are used for heart issues.
The collective effect of the drugs on healthy young people would be to improve endurance, not only in competition but the training needed to reach the elite in the sport. Tutberidze has made no effort to hide the pitiless intensity of her practice sessions and training methods. She now has been implicated in a doping case.
There must be sympathy over seeing someone so young suffer as Valieva did. There must also be contempt for those who put her in such a position, who made her the protagonist of a story that ended with haunting visions of intense pain and livid anger and chilling detachment.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.