The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

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)
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One of the most stunning moments in the history of Olympic defeats unfolded Thursday after Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure skater largely expected to waltz to a gold medal, fell twice during her free skate to finish in fourth place.

Centered around a youngster who had been under intense scrutiny after she was allowed to compete despite testing positive for a banned substance, the scene on NBC’s broadcast on the USA Network was excruciating to watch and quickly devolved into teary disbelief and chaos that was unlike anything in recent Olympic memory.

“This is my 18th Olympic Games,” NBC’s Jimmy Roberts said as he closed the live coverage, “and I can honestly say I do not think I have ever seen anything like this. Raw emotions everywhere. A stunning resolution to the story, and it’s one I can’t imagine anyone saw coming.”

NBC’s event broadcast crew of Terry Gannon, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir also tried to process the scene. Lipinski and Weir, former Olympic skaters themselves, had been outspoken in their criticism of the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to let Valieva skate.

As Valieva took the ice for what was expected to be a coronation, Lipinski and Weir remained silent as Gannon spoke of how Valieva, the history-making queen of the quadruple jump, had “regrettably” become the story of the Games because of the positive test.

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“There isn’t a lonelier place than standing center ice,” Lipinski, a gold medalist in 1998 as a 15-year-old, said as the camera zoomed in on Valieva’s face. “I can’t imagine what she’s feeling right now.”

Lipinski and Weir kept their comments to a minimum as Valieva skated — and fell early. “These are uncharacteristic mistakes,” Lipinski said. After her second fall, Lipinski, Weir and Gannon offered fewer observations than they had during the routines of the 24 previous skaters.

As she finished skating to “Bolero,” Valieva threw an exasperated wave of her arm into the air and broke down the instant her performance ended. “And, yes, she is just 15 years old,” Gannon reminded viewers. “Something we’ve never seen from Kamila Valieva in her young career, and now the question is will there be a medal ceremony?”

Had she won a medal, there would not have been a ceremony, International Olympic Committee officials had said. But she finished fourth, off the podium.

“That’s the most mistakes we’ve ever seen Kamila make in a free skate,” Weir said as Valieva skated around the ice. “I can’t imagine how tough this has been on Kamila,” Lipinski added.

Valieva continued to skate, all alone in the Olympic spotlight. “It makes me angry that the adults around her weren’t able to make better decisions and be there for her, because she is the one now dealing with the consequences and she’s just 15 and that’s not fair,” Lipinski said. “Again, with that being said, she should not have been allowed to skate in this Olympic event.”

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Valieva left the ice, and Weir, who speaks Russian, interpreted that her coach was offering her critical tips as she helped Valieva put her jacket on. As Valieva walked away, clutching a stuffed animal and pulling on her mask, she broke down.

“On a human level, I can’t imagine going through what she has been through,” Weir said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that she should have been nowhere near this competition. Every athlete at this level knows and understands that if you test positive for a banned substance, you will not compete.”

NBC’s close-up showed the disappointment in Valieva’s eyes as her scores were announced. “No, that’s not going to get it,” Gannon said. “... There will be a gold, silver and bronze medal in the women’s event in Beijing.”

“Thank God,” Weir interjected.

Flanked by her coaches, Valieva broke down again.

“Johnny, exactly. Thank goodness for all the other medalists to have that moment [with the podium presentation],” Lipinski said. “And to have done it cleanly,” Weir added.

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As Valieva continued to weep in a heart-wrenching contrast to those words, Gannon said, with his voice breaking, “Here’s hoping there is someone to put their arms around that young woman and guide her.” With that comment, Lipinski and Weir softened a bit.

“This is devastating,” Lipinski said as the camera continued to bear down on Valieva. “It’s heartbreaking,” Weir agreed.

Gannon swiveled to the results: Russian Anna Shcherbakova in first, Russian Alexandra Trusova second and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto third.

As Valieva rested her chin in her red-gloved hands, Gannon noted that “you started the evening and actually the women’s event once we knew she was eligible, shaking your head and saying, ‘I’m not quite sure what to make of this,’ and you kind of end it this way, too.”

That became the overwhelming feeling as the broadcast lingered on the scene.

“I don’t even know what to feel or think. You’re watching her go through this pain. She’s 15,” Lipinski said. “Again, I blame the adults around her to even be put in this position. All the other athletes this week — what they’ve gone through, the possibility of there being no medal ceremony or podium. That’s what every little girl dreams of when they think of the Olympics.”

Weir praised “all the athletes who have competed here cleanly, but it is heartbreaking to watch Kamila have to go through this. The people around her should have kept her away from this, shielded her from this, kept her from competing here.”

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Valieva finally left the “kiss-and-cry” area where athletes receive their scores, with cameras trailing her and officials telling her where to go. The broadcast’s focus switched to the still-stunned medalists as they clutched stuffed toys and prepared for the podium presentation.

“It doesn’t seem like a gold medalist with the look on her face right now,” Gannon said of Shcherbakova, whose eyes were downcast. “I think everybody is trying to make sense of what they just saw.”

“But this is why you don’t let something like this happen in the first place, because it affects everyone involved, not just Kamila,” Lipinski said, adding as the camera continued to focus on Shcherbakova, “This girl just won the Olympics. …

“These girls are so close. These young women live their lives alongside one another, and it’s hard not to be affected when you see that reaction and that destruction of a young person at the end of their performance.”

Trusova appeared angry. Shcherbakova looked, to Gannon, “lost” as she sat alone on a sofa and awaited the podium presentation. “Terry, I’m just feeling so much,” Lipinski said.

Finally, someone gave Shcherbakova a hug.

“The [Court of Arbitration for Sport] that ruled to allow Kamila to skate in this competition was worried about the ramifications on her mental health, how not competing in this competition [would affect her], and I’m wondering what they’re thinking now as to what just happened to Kamila Valieva,” Weir said.

As the skaters prepared to head to the podium, Sakamoto sobbed and smiled and, as Gannon took in the scene, he said, “I’ve never witnessed any sporting event quite like this.”

Music began to play shortly after that, and the athletes stood, appropriately socially distanced, on the podium. And finally, during a most surreal ceremony, there were some smiles.

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