DAEGWALLYEONG, South Korea — The best day of young Alina Zagitova’s radiant athletic career soured atop a medal stand. On that podium, Zagitova was perched above all, the new queen of figure skating at age 15, but being royalty is a loaded honor when you represent a shamed nation.
Zagitova is a Russian at the PyeongChang Games, where Russia supposedly does not exist. It is in theoretical Olympic exile for its doping sins, except for the 168 Russian competitors here who live in a sporting orphanage called the Olympic Athletes from Russia. They are as vanilla as their name: no traditional red uniform, no tricolor flag and absolutely no national anthem to celebrate any OAR gold medalists.
For 13 days, the Russians kept missing out on gold, and the anthem scenario remained nothing more than a thought. Then, in a marquee event the Russians were too good to lose, Zagitova nipped compatriot Evgenia Medvedeva in a duel to beat all figure skating duels. And as an exhilarating Friday advanced to a harsh and freezing night, the youngest Olympic champion here had to share her jubilation with the heart-wrenching counterbalance that she had no way to express national pride.
The reality hadn’t been so poignant before, not even when the Russians marched behind the generic Olympic flag during the Opening Ceremonies. The Games are all about representing your country, and that matters most during your proudest moments. But at 7:33 p.m. local time, on the 14th day of this quadrennial winter event, Zagitova endured the most awkward two minutes of her glory.
With a gold medal around her neck, she stood tall at the PyeongChang Medals Plaza, Medvedeva to her right and Canadian bronze medalist Kaetlyn Osmond to her left, before the announcer sank her spirits.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the male voice said, “the Olympic anthem!”
Oh, that song. You know it if you hear it. And then you forget it until you’re forced to remember it again.
As the tune played, officials raised three flags: one Canadian flag for Osmond and two five-ringed, white Olympic flags for the Russians. Medvedeva tried to keep a smile. Zagitova was stoic.
A volunteer ran to a television and snapped a selfie with the image of the new figure skating queen. Then he took a hard look at the image and said, “She doesn’t look happy.” Many near him agreed. When the music stopped and the misery ended, Zagitova gave her only significant reaction.
And she walked off the stage to great applause, wearing a gray winter coat and a long scarf — the entire outfit plain, save for the circular “Olympic Athletes from Russia” patch on the right side of the outer garment.
The International Olympic Committee has been criticized for its wishy-washy method of punishing Russia for vile systematic doping when it hosted the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. A popular adjective has been “toothless,” and considering that two Russian athletes have been busted for doping violations in PyeongChang, there’s plenty of reason to question whether the IOC accomplished anything with how it handled the scandal.
But it’s always a difficult endeavor to go about disciplining a country full of individuals who don’t all share the same values or deserve the same blame. There will always be a gray area and collateral damage. Friday night represented the most personal level of punishment levied upon Russia. It watched its charming new favorite daughter squirm during a public shaming that she did not provoke.
That was the teeth of this ban, and it took a hard bite. This is what the IOC intended to do. It didn’t want to ban just the athletes who tested positive; it wanted to ban Russia — its flag and its anthem — because the country sought to undermine the core competitive values of the Olympic movement.
Zagitova had a crowning moment — but only for herself, not her country. It was sad. It felt both like justice and a grossly unfair and abusive act.
Earlier in the day, Zagitova was asked whether she had prepared for how that would feel. She shot back with a nervous laugh: “Could I please not answer this question?”
But she wanted a gold medal for Russia. She couldn’t hide that.
“I was trying with all my strength to ignore it, but I couldn’t,” Zagitova said. “I was really worried because I knew I didn’t have the right to make a mistake. I had to skate clean and show my maximum. I’m so happy I could.”
Although there was little doubt that Zagitova and Medvedeva were superior to the field, the Russian girls could not relax. The athletes had fought so hard just to be here. Medvedeva, 18, had a broken foot in December when she visited IOC headquarters in Switzerland and helped Russian sports authorities make their plea to be included in these Olympics. She gave an emotional and persuasive speech. She inspired a compromise.
After a record-breaking showdown in the short program Wednesday, Zagitova and Medvedeva staged another epic performance during Friday’s free skate. The Russian fans could sense something special was about to happen at Gangneung Ice Arena. They waved their tricolor flags. They chanted loudly. They made it rain stuffed animals when the two competitors finished their thrilling routines. Zagitova and Medvedeva skated to a draw in the long program: Both scored 156.65. After the short and long scores were combined, it meant that Zagitova won the competition by a mere 1.31 points.
Medvedeva wept when it ended. The first round of tears represented a surprising release of emotions. Then, after the judges revealed the winner, she cried because she was so close to gold.
“I covered my face because it was very strange to me,” Medvedeva said. “It was odd. It was a completely different feeling than I had imagined. It was probably because the pressure had been there a long time, and my emotions went overboard.”
Zagitova made an honest admission, too. When she realized she had won, she had no discernible initial reaction. She felt joy, and then she felt nothing.
“When I came in first, I felt very, very happy but also kind of empty inside,” she said.
Perhaps she already was preparing for what would come 4½ hours later. By then, there were no men cheering in shirts that spelled “R-U-S-S-I-A.” There were no Russian fans swaying as “We Are The Champions” played over the sound system. Of that crowd, Medvedeva said proudly: “It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are. People know who we are, and the spectators in the stands proved that today.”
But the night did arrive, and it was no longer just a celebration of Russian beauty, precision and grace. Zagitova did not wear a cute red tutu. She and Medvedeva were back to being representatives of OAR, and while the crowd at the medals plaza appreciated them for their mesmerizing battle, the intrigue had turned to how they would react to not being allowed to be Russian in their finest hour.
Before the Games, Zagitova seemed unfazed by this possibility.
“At the Olympics, we will be competing under the white flag, but we are still athletes from Russia,” she had said. “In our souls, we know.”
When the 15-year-old assumed the throne Friday night, she looked proud but conflicted, very happy but kind of empty. On the 14th day of its Olympic pseudo-exile, Russia managed to be more present and absent than ever.
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