The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The drama surrounding Kamila Valieva exposes a sport that has lost its way

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Feb. 18 said he was “disturbed” by the treatment of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva in Beijing. (Video: John Farrell/The Washington Post)
7 min

Drama is no stranger to the ice rink, but Thursday’s Olympic women’s figure skating final was almost too much, offering the most gut-wrenching moments the sport has seen.

On one hand, there was the brilliance of Anna Shcherbakova, who skated a triumphant and history-making performance, redemptive in its wonder. It followed a year of skepticism and injury and rightfully earned her an Olympic gold medal. She won and yet she stood alone, seemingly pondering life’s existential questions, as the world and her top advocates focused on someone else.

Her support system had circled around her friend and teammate Kamila Valieva, 15, who had collapsed under the Olympic pressure and the scrutiny of the world because she was competing despite testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Near ­Valieva was teammate Alexandra Trusova, screaming in anger after putting her health on the line by executing a historic jumpfest that seemed for naught because she only won the silver medal.

An isolated champion, a crestfallen favorite with a positive drug test and a disgruntled silver medalist — all within feet of one another. What has become of this sport? After the results were in, the true price of the doping scandal — as well as the questionable rigors that have brought us the Great Russian Rotational Revolution — became apparent. A competition is marred, skaters are scarred, and no one is sure what comes next.

Without the dark cloud of doping, the competition would have been regarded as phenomenal. Start with Ekaterina Kurakova of Poland, who came into Thursday’s free skate in 24th place but skated a charming program with seven triple jumps that propelled her to 12th. And then the joy of Japan’s Wakaba Higuchi, whose performance set to the music of “The Lion King” would have brought down a full house if a pandemic did not wipe away full houses. That Higuchi was the first woman in 12 years — and only the third ever in the women’s free skate — to take off on that treacherous forward outside edge and land the triple Axel was historic and momentous.

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)

But those moments were overshadowed by what would happen next. Enter Trusova, skating’s Evel Knievel who had dyed her hair a hellish red to channel the fiery spirit of puppy-snatching Cruella de Vil, flinging herself into the air with reckless abandon. The number of quadruple jumps performed by women in this free skate soared from zero to five during Trusova’s performance alone. And her combination in the second half of the program — a quadruple Lutz, vaulting from the outside edge of the toe pick, followed by a triple toe — was the hardest jumping pass performed in the history of the Olympics, for women or men.

But Trusova’s jumps lack control and seem desperate. She pays little attention to the in-between steps, galloping from one end of the rink to the other, betraying the intent that skaters must have broader skills than landing jumps.

Yet Trusova’s lopsided approach was perilously close to becoming the strategy to make an Olympic champion, exposing flaws in how the judging system balances technical merit and artistic impression. Afterward, television cameras caught her screaming in Russian about how much she hated the sport. “I hate it! I hate everyone!” she said on her nation’s TV feed, adding that she never wanted to skate again.

Kamila Valieva's torment will be the sad legacy of the Beijing Olympics

Shcherbakova is in an entirely different league than her teammate. She skated like a champion, with grace and grit. She started with two explosive quadruple jumps — both flips, taking off on the part of the blade between the legs — and never stopped wowing the judges with her technical arsenal. Her balletic arms almost defied the power in which she glided across the ice.

She had a performance for the ages, and it probably would have won the competition even if Valieva had performed well.

But Valieva did not perform well. From her first seconds on the ice, she skated as though she had been taken over by a body snatcher — unable to square her arms or dig deep enough in her knees to set off her planned quadruple jumps or the triple jumps that typically come easily for her. With “Bolero” playing in the background, the methodic march that legendary skaters have used to showcase swaggerific bravado felt like a cruel choice as we watched a 15-year-old wilt before our eyes. As the music ended, it became clear that it was not her body but her spirit that had been snatched — not just by the Olympic pressure but by court appeals and defiant coaches and rightful criticism and upset athletes trying to make sense of all this mess.

Shcherbakova noted that she needed time to sit by herself to think about what her accomplishment meant. Those questions should extend to everyone in the sport.

Winning at the Olympics seems like it should be the capstone of a competitive résumé and all the years-long rigor, a moment of achievement for athlete and coach. The Russian Olympic Committee’s current approach certainly makes it an achievement for the coach; Eteri Tutberidze, who trains all three Russians, has ushered in an era of conveyor-belt champions to women’s figure skating. They are typically girls under 18 who push boundaries, win a medal or two and then go away, their bodies worse for the wear.

Do the Russian figure skating coach's tactics go too far?

Her stable’s medal count would make her one of the great coaches, up there with Carlo Fassi, Alexei Mishin and Frank Carroll. But those three are the coaches who supported Peggy Fleming, Evgeni Plushenko and Michelle Kwan — memorable skaters with lasting legacies in the sport who never felt discarded or worthless when they did not win.

So what good is an Olympic gold medal at 15, 16 or 17 in a system that values the medal more than the experience? What joy is there if you will be cast aside as the media surrounds your crying teammate and another competitor is throwing a tantrum behind you? What pride is there to stand atop a podium when observers are surprised that there is even a podium to stand on, given that the medal favorite was told she would not be given a medal until her doping investigation is complete?

These are new questions for a sport that has long been questionable. But the one that typically drives a competition, particularly in the women’s field at the Olympics, is whether judges will favor the ballet or the circus. The great rivalries in modern skating — Zagitova vs. Medvedeva, Sotnikova vs. Kim, Kwan vs. Lipinski — usually revolve around the judges’ preference in choosing between the elegant and the explosive. It is a rarity that elegance wins, but this time they chose Shcherbakova’s ballet. And still the choice was overtaken by a different kind of circus, one in which there were no winners and all accomplishments were tarnished.

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

If there was an antidote, it was Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, the bronze medalist who can generate so much speed on the ice that it seems she is sailing more than skating. Before she started, her coach, Sonoko Nakano, held her, as she usually does — steadying her protege’s shoulders, whispering affirmations in her ear as she faced the ice.

And then Sakamoto was off, landing powerful jumps with ease and joy, skating to a spoken-word poem demanding that women be appreciated, valued and not taken advantage of. May Sakamoto’s empowering message serve as a beacon for figure skating, a stabilizing force in a sport that has lost its way.

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