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

Kamila Valieva falls during her free skate portion of the Olympic women's figure skating competition Thursday in Beijing. (REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez)
7 min

BEIJING — The first two dozen competitors skated, jumped, slipped and spun over the course of nearly four hours, some delivering the best performances of their careers and many living out the highlight of their lives. With Olympic medals at stake, tears of joy and disappointment accompanied occasional finishes. And yet it all served as the seemingly insignificant prelude to the Olympics’ most controversial and heart-wrenching 4 minutes 9 seconds of competition.

Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old wunderkind from Russia who’s now at the center of a doping scandal, competed Thursday despite a recent drug test that revealed a banned substance in her system. And when she took the ice for the final time of these Games, she looked entirely broken, as if the enormity of the past week had suddenly taken its toll all at once.

Valieva entered as the undisputed gold medal favorite, then turned into the Games’ biggest headline. She slipped, stumbled and fell two times during a free skate that a mere two weeks ago seemed poised to become her Olympic title-winning dream. Instead, the disastrous performance and pent-up emotion left the teenager inconsolable and out of medal contention.

Svrluga: Congrats to the Russian Olympic Committee medalists. Save the receipts.

“I saw from her first jump how difficult it was, what a burden it was for her,” teammate Anna Shcherbakova said through an interpreter. Shcherbakova won the gold medal, followed by fellow Russian Alexandra Trusova. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto took bronze.

Once Valieva’s score appeared and confirmed her fourth-place finish — a previously unthinkable outcome — she cried with her coaches. The tears began on the ice, and a distraught Valieva remained planted to her seat for a couple of minutes.

Then she finally left the arena, her time in Beijing meeting its contentious, sorrowful end. Valieva’s fourth-place finish eased the path forward for Olympic officials. They could award medals here, which they hadn’t planned to do if Valieva landed on the podium — a clear sign they are preparing for the possibility that she is retroactively disqualified.

So as Valieva relocated her distress to a private space, the other medalists celebrated. Shcherbakova, the reigning world champion, won the gold with a 255.95, followed not far behind by Trusova in second. Valieva, Shcherbakova and Trusova all train together and have pushed the boundaries of their sport with difficult programs. This competition could have been a showcase of quadruple jumps, and athletes representing the Russian Olympic Committee could have swept the podium, which no country has ever done in women’s figure skating. Instead, the event was tarnished by both scandal and sadness.

“I have mixed feelings, but I was feeling a lot of pleasure because I happened to be in the right time and the right place and did the right things,” Shcherbakova said without directly mentioning Valieva. “... But talking about results, I still don’t comprehend what has happened. I’m just overwhelmed by happiness on the one hand. On the other hand, I feel this emptiness inside.”

Despite Kamila Valieva's tragic loss, her Russian Olympic Committee teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova received top medals in Beijing on Feb 17. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Valieva’s on-ice meltdown opened the door for Sakamoto. She had a less difficult but clean performance and won the bronze medal with a 233.13, well behind the Russian duo but a comfortable margin ahead of Valieva’s 224.09. Sakamoto, who still has a newspaper clipping from Shizuka Arakawa’s gold medal for Japan in 2006, called her podium finish surprising. As figure skating competitions roll through competitors, the top three in the standings wait in a room together until someone bumps them out of medal position. When Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi left the room, Sakamoto said she told her, “I’ll be catching up with you.” But Valieva’s skate wasn’t enough for a medal, so Sakamoto stayed through the end and onto the podium ceremony.

The three medalists received panda mascots as if this was just another typical Olympic competition, even though the skaters below Valieva technically have provisional placements until her case is resolved.

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Valieva first brought her brilliant skating to Beijing and then an enormous cloud to the competition. She tested positive for a prohibited substance in December, but the lab analyzing the sample didn’t report the result until Feb. 8, after the Games already had begun. That prompted an expedited hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled Valieva could continue competing. With the legal process ongoing, the court cited the irreparable harm to Valieva if she had been suspended and later found innocent. So she got to participate, but that only led to a stunning, raw collapse.

She breezed through the interview area without stopping for questions after Tuesday’s short program that, despite minor mistakes, placed her in the lead heading into Thursday’s competition. After the free skate, Valieva again did not answer questions from reporters. When asked about her teammate, Trusova said, “I am not going to say anything about Kamila.”

Valieva had seized the status of the next Russian figure skating star, unfamiliar with anything other than gold. But in Beijing, Shcherbakova, the three-time national champion until Valieva dethroned her this season, continued the country’s run of excellence. The Russians have dominated women’s figure skating in recent years, with athletes from the country winning the past three Olympics and five of the last six world championships.

This trio of Russians train under Eteri Tutberidze, the coach whose tactics have drawn scrutiny. They all have a remarkable arsenal of difficult jumps, ones previously never landed at the Games.

Before she surged to the center of this controversy, Valieva became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics when she attempted three and landed two during her free skate in the team event. Shcherbakova attempted two Thursday but leaned on her exquisite performance quality and near-perfect execution.

“After my performance, I realized that I had done the maximum of what I was capable of, and I had done everything,” the 17-year-old said.

How NBC handled one of the most gut-wrenching scenes in Olympic figure skating history

That was enough to edge Trusova, who had the best free skate score of the evening after she landed five quads — the same number that men’s gold medalist Nathan Chen performs. Trusova fell during her short program, and she entered Thursday’s competition in fourth. Her coach suggested she attempt only four quads, but Trusova said she replied: “No, I will do everything here.” Even when that plan worked, despite a couple of shaky landings, Trusova, 17, still wasn’t pleased with the silver.

“I did what I could,” she said through an interpreter. “I am not happy with the result. That's why I was angry. I was disappointed.”

The rest of the field, including the Americans, lacked that difficult technical content. Alysa Liu, 16, led the contingent of U.S. skaters in seventh. Mariah Bell, who performed a lovely program but one that didn’t include jumps to match her peers, placed 10th, and Karen Chen stumbled on her way to 16th.

Sakamoto knew that without a triple axel or a quadruple jump, she needed to skate exceptionally well. And she did. After Valieva struggled on nearly every jump, Sakamoto’s mark turned out to be enough for bronze.

With a scoring system that incentivizes difficulty, the Russians have an advantage. Trusova and Shcherbakova showed that with their medal-winning performances. Their jumps evoke awe. So do Valieva’s usual programs, when she combines those tricks with mesmerizing grace and flexibility. But that’s not the version of Valieva who appeared on the ice here. She received this opportunity to compete — knowing it could be deemed invalid at a later date — and in that moment, she looked like only a fragment of herself and a 15-year-old crushed by the chaos.

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