BEIJING — The room where the media meets the figure skaters at the Beijing Olympics is about 50 feet by 50 feet. It is located under the Capital Indoor Stadium stands, connected to the arena ice by a tunnel and a set of glass doors. A winding pathway, with light metal barriers on each side, has been set up inside the room.
Each skater here must walk along this path when they finish competing. Reporters stand on either side of the barriers, and the skaters are expected to stop and answer questions as they move down the path, an area known as the mixed zone.
The mixed zone Tuesday night became the place where the dirty business of collecting reaction to Russian skater Kamila Valieva’s precedence in the women’s individual short program despite her positive test for a banned heart medication. Among media, there was a tacit acknowledgment of the strangeness of adults asking young women, many still teenagers clutching stuffed animals, about a 15-year-old’s positive doping test.
But Valieva’s test had become the story of these Olympics.
“It’s like the biggest thing that’s happened here so far in the figure skating event,” said American skater Alysa Liu, 16.
“Of course, social media was full of it, but I was like swiping it away because I am here to focus on myself and not other things,” said Germany’s Nicole Schott, 25.
The Valieva situation was a bit of a quagmire for other skaters. There seemed to be anger that someone who had tested positive for a banned substance was allowed to compete, but no one wanted to say too much.
It became an awkward dance of outrage and indifference — and a deflated admission that Valieva’s positive test months ago, its subsequent revelation last week and Monday’s ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that allowed Valieva to compete Tuesday had overwhelmed everything else. Here to skate, they were suddenly talking about something that had nothing to do with skating.
“I wish it was a level playing field and it’s not, but they’ve made a decision they’ve made and I can’t do anything about that,” Great Britain’s Natasha McKay said.
“What’s fair is that I’m here and that I did it in a way that I’m very proud,” American Mariah Bell said a few minutes later. “I don’t know about anything else. It’s not my business. Obviously, I feel sad for my teammates. It seems wrong to punish people who have done things the right way.”
No one said the dominance of the Valieva story had destroyed their Olympics, but the skaters were clearly tired of hearing about the Russian.
Some said they talked about it with friends. Others said they tried to ignore it as much as possible. But no amount of blocking it out could keep Valieva news from seeping into their lives.
“Honestly, I really like Twitter. I think it’s funny. But every time I go on Twitter, I’m like, ‘I can’t read this right now,’ so I don’t check it anymore — and also Instagram because my direct messages are flooded with stuff,” Swiss skater Alexia Paganini said.
Paganini, 20, who was born in Connecticut and has lived most of her life in the New York City suburb of Harrison, was asked what kinds of things people were saying in those direct messages.
“Just asking for comments about the situation and giving me advice on what I should do — if I should compete or not compete,” she added.
It seemed to her, she said, best to just not pay attention to social media at all this week.
There were expressions of sympathy toward Valieva, especially because of her age. Other skaters expressed frustration and sadness that the winners of this event — as well as the medalists in the team event (in which Valieva helped the team representing the Russian Olympic Committee to a gold) — will not get their medals in a ceremony here because the International Olympic Committee decided to not hand them out with Valieva’s case unsettled.
American Karen Chen, in line for a silver medal from the team event, lamented that she and her teammates wouldn’t be able to wear their “medal outfits” and stand on the podium. She said it was also disappointing that they wouldn’t do so with teammate Vincent Zhou, who was not part of their initial on-ice celebration last week because he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Mostly, though, fellow competitors seemed to want to distance themselves from Valieva as much as possible.
“A doping athlete competing against a clean athlete is obviously not fair,” Liu said. “I don’t know what happened [with Valieva], but I believe in clean sport.”
As Liu said this, Valieva could be seen on a television behind her, just starting her program. Minutes later, groups of reporters filled the room, lining the barriers, waiting for Valieva to enter the mixed zone. A large group of Russian reporters leaned against a railing in the middle of the room.
Suddenly there was a noise near the door. Valieva appeared with a Russian team jacket over her purple skating dress. Behind her was a large man who was part of the country’s delegation. They walked quickly down the winding pathway, saying nothing, looking straight ahead.
Valieva hugged a stuffed animal that appeared to be some kind of a purple hippopotamus. She said nothing. The Russian official said nothing. Seconds later, they were gone and the room fell into an odd stupor. On a night when many skaters said her drug test had dominated their Olympics, the person at the center of the storm said nothing.
She disappeared through a back door without making a sound.
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