BEIJING — Kamila Valieva sat crying, sandwiched between two consoling coaches. She would not rise. She bent over, head approaching her knees. She tilted over, falling into the lap of choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz.
The result broke the child. After a disastrous free skate, Valieva tumbled from first to fourth place in the women’s competition, a supposed sure thing left to watch gold, silver and bronze evade her. There was no need for asterisks, provisional medals or any other winging-it gestures from the International Olympic Committee to manage a cumbersome situation. The girl lost. She wasn’t crowned, pending the outcome of her peculiar and unsettled case. In the end, she wasn’t recognized at all.
Valieva wasn’t recognizable, either. She fell to the ice twice. She stumbled again and again, resembling a woozy boxer. Almost nothing in her repertoire worked for her: the quadruple jumps, the triples, simple gliding. The more she fought, the worse she looked. Her fundamentals collapsed. Her body stopped working with her, knees not bending, shoulders not straightening.
As she came off the ice, the television cameras caught her perplexed coach, Eteri Tutberidze, saying in Russian, “Explain it to me.”
Failure and misery are more prevalent in sports than we care to acknowledge, but this was another level. This was torture on ice. Consider it happened to a teenager — one experiencing vilification for a possible doping plot that she couldn’t have devised on her own — and her agonizing four-minute free skate stands as perhaps the most abusive moment in sports history.
“You let it go completely,” Tutberidze said. “I don’t get it. Everything was fine.”
Two weeks ago, Valieva was a sensation earmarked for best-of-the-best candidacy, a defining figure skating talent. Then on Feb. 8 came the revelation that trimetazidine — a heart medication that could be used to enhance endurance — had been found in her system. The gold medal she helped the Russian Olympic Committee win in the team event is locked away somewhere until her case is tried. But the CAS ruled Valieva could vie for the individual title despite the hovering cloud, saying it wanted to shield her from the “irreparable harm” of missing out on the Olympic dream because of a case in limbo.
It proved to be a fragile shield.
Some might consider Valieva’s meltdown a form of justice. You know: Skates don’t lie, or something like that. But even fervent protectors of fair play and integrity had to cringe while watching Valieva suffer.
“Sorry, I will not talk about this situation,” Russian gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova said afterward.
Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova were the top two finishers, the second straight Olympics in which the nation formerly known as Russia went gold-silver in women’s figure skating. Their country competed under the Russian Olympic Committee designation in Beijing because of its past state-sponsored doping sins. If Valieva had performed at 80 percent of her ability, the ROC would have swept the podium, except there wouldn’t have been a ceremony because of the half-measure that allowed Valieva to participate.
The winners were able to be lauded, though. Bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan joined Shcherbakova and Trusova to bask. The Capital Indoor Stadium crowd of a few hundred made as much noise as it could. Shcherbakova expressed a champion’s disbelief, and it had nothing to do with questions about whether the result would stand.
“I still feel that I need several hours to be alone,” Shcherbakova, 17, said. “I need to be alone for several hours just to sit in a quiet room, just to ponder, just to think.”
She thought she was dreaming.
“I am not here, frankly,” she said of her bliss.
But in another moment, her mind drifted.
“On the other hand, I feel this emptiness,” Shcherbakova said, letting the thought float away, no elaboration.
The night ended with an astonished, unproblematic gold medalist. However, to reach a clean conclusion, it decimated Valieva.
After all the ugliness of the past week, the Winter Olympics are over, closed before they close. They’re over like a party that ends early because of a drunken brawl, a forced evacuation for your own safety. Get out of here. Go. Now. You shouldn’t be subjected to more emotional trauma.
This dreary night completed the task. The Beijing Games have been tagged with a seminal catastrophe and a legacy that cannot be expunged. They will forever be the Olympics that tormented a 15-year-old, invited a doping scandal to a signature event and hoped to cover it all with extra sequins.
The IOC averted the shame of its contingency plan to name provisional medalists. Yet there was no relief. Few outside of Russia were probably rooting for Valieva, but who could have wanted her to lose like this?
Early in the Olympics, before the controversy, Valieva wowed the world during the team competition. A reporter asked afterward if she was unbeatable. The question was translated to Valieva, and she shook her head, smiled a sheepish kid’s smile and spoke in English.
“No,” she said.
It pains me to realize how right she was.
Thursday night was a gruesome scene, cloaked in finery and artistry, and what an appropriate, mirthless lasting impression of Beijing 2022. An Olympics bursting with moral indifference about the heinous tactics of the Chinese government peaked with a helpless prodigy falling and rising and falling. You wanted the music to stop. It wouldn’t. For four minutes, she was stranded on the ice, overwhelmed, paying for a mess much bigger than her.
When it was over, Valieva waved her right hand in disgust. The merciful crowd applauded and chanted her name. She wept. The crowd kept applauding. Nothing could have cheered her up.
Then she sat and heard her score: 141.93. It was more than 40 points lower than her best effort. Her combined total of 224.09 over two nights landed her nine points shy of a medal stand the IOC would’ve left as implied.
The song “Rolling In the Deep” blasted through the speakers as she stayed frozen in disappointment. Adele was declaring “We could’ve had it all!” when Valieva started to move again. She walked away alone, through the mixed zone and out of the scrutiny. Her coaches didn’t leave with her. They had two medalists to celebrate.
Because Valieva lost, there would be a ceremony.