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In an Olympic upset, winning figure skaters get a medal ceremony after all

Russian figure skater Anna Shcherbakova raises her hands in celebration, following her gold medal-winning Olympic performance. She was honored at a post-event ceremony along with silver medalist Alexandra Trusova of the Russian Olympic Committee and bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

BEIJING — Suddenly just after 10 p.m. Thursday, a dozen diligent Olympic workers appeared on the ice and began doing something unforeseen. They set down a light-blue tarp on which people could walk upon the ice. Then they set down a podium amid the tarp.

It was a logistical upset.

No one expected any kind of post-event presentation for the top three finishers in the women’s figure skating competition at the Beijing Olympics — not in the arena where medalists receive trinkets and recognition just after their skating, and not in the medals plaza where the medals go out the next night. The International Olympic Committee had made the unusual decision to forgo such customs because one of the medalists was sure to be Kamila Valieva, who built a lead in Tuesday’s short program and had skated under a doping cloud that became the leading story of these Olympics.

Figure skating finale ends in tears, as Kamila Valieva melts down and Anna Shcherbakova takes gold

Yet one messy skate from the 15-year-old later, the whole event was suddenly upturned, and here came two women and a man, walking along the tarp, the women as attendants wearing traditional Chinese garb, and the man in an overcoat with a furry hood. He was Jan Dijkema of the Netherlands, president of the International Skating Union, and he was about to present those panda trinkets.

Valieva, the probable gold medalist, was not even a medalist. She had toppled from first all the way to fourth. Alexandra Trusova, whose bold program involved five quadruple moves, had bolted from fourth to second. Anna Shcherbakova had moved from second to first. And one of the most stunned souls in the rink, Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, had remained in third even after the magnitude of Trusova’s performance.

“To be honest, I was very surprised that I won bronze,” Sakamoto would say later. “I am simply quite happy for now.”

Instead of being a fourth-place finisher resigned to waiting for rulings on Valieva to see whether she ever got to bronze, Sakamoto had become the fourth Japanese woman to win an Olympic figure skating individual medal, after silver medalist Midori Ito at Albertville 1992, gold medalist Shizuka Arakawa at Turin 2006 and silver medalist Mao Asada at Vancouver 2010.

She had done this 16 years after being a kindergartner watching Arakawa and putting that news report on her wall. Nobody expected any of this to become topical. “After Anna skated,” Sakamoto would say of the penultimate competitor and eventual gold medalist, “I couldn’t imagine that I would be the bronze medalist.”

So after the three medalists were introduced to the small and scattered Chinese audience — “Please welcome the winners of figure skating women’s single!” — the three of them skated out and pirouetted and waved, something they didn’t expect to do.

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Then, standing behind the podium, they got their individual introductions before stepping up. Sakamoto positively beamed. Trusova didn’t, having felt peeved over the judging after her spectacular performance to music from “Cruella.” Shcherbakova looked elated and waved both hands, even as later she would speak of an “emptiness.”

“I am not here, frankly,” the Russian skater said at a news conference.

A medal ceremony would get announced, slated for Friday at 7:45 p.m. Beijing time. After Dijkema and the attendants left the ice, the three women took the top of the podium together before skating around the arena to pose for photos, with Trusova in black, Shcherbakova in purple and Sakamoto in blue. Soon Sakamoto was out there alone with a Japanese flag and a photographer blaring from up in the stands, “Take off your mask!”

In a week and an event of little clarity, there would be medals, even if some in the arena no doubt took note that the Russian skaters who finished first, second and fourth all work with the same coach under fresh investigation, Eteri Tutberidze.

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“Well,” Trusova said, “I am happy that there will be a ceremony, that we are going to get our medals. Of course, it will be extremely pleasant for me to receive my medal.”

She just doesn’t agree with the color of her medal, thinking the ambition of her competition merited gold. In the men’s competition, American Nathan Chen had also landed five quads, which was good enough for the top spot of the podium last week. Trusova’s post-event complaints were reportedly picked up on Russian TV on an evening that just couldn’t stop tacking on the distress.

“I have already answered that,” she said during the news conference, referring to earlier interviews. “I did what I could. I am not happy with the result. That’s why I was angry. I was disappointed. For the first time I skated with the five quadruples. I waited for this moment a long time, and it worked out.”

It worked out that she got a trinket already with a medal to come. No one expected her or any medalist to leave town with either.