Figure skating prizes the value of keeping up appearances, smiling for the world while everything’s going to hell.
But the sport can’t smile its way through this crisis. As Russia’s Kamila Valieva resumed competition at the Olympics on Tuesday despite a positive test for a banned drug, some peers broke a longstanding code of decorum and spoke out.
According to Yahoo News, Valieva’s positive test for a banned heart medication, stemmed from a sample submitted Dec. 25. But a six-week turnaround, which U.S. anti-doping chief Travis Tygart called “absolutely inexcusable,” delayed reporting of the result until after Valieva had helped Russia win gold in the Olympic team event — a gold so controversial the medals still haven’t been awarded.
The complex doping legal system then placed Valieva’s fate in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. CAS, citing a provision that protects minors, kicked the can further down the road by giving Valieva the right to participate while withholding judgment on her guilt. Critics of the CAS’s decision, including many of the most prominent names in the sport, weren’t interested in such legalistic hair-splitting.
“I think it’s completely unfair to the rest of the competitors,” Chinese American skater Zhu Yi told Yahoo Sports. “It’s the fact that everybody else is clean and she tested positive.”
As Valieva took to the ice for Tuesday night’s short program, where she would qualify first ahead of Thursday night’s free skate, 16-year-old American Alysa Liu glanced over her shoulder, and acknowledged that Valieva’s presence in the event was “a little odd.”
“I just don’t know enough details to have a solid opinion on it,” Liu said. “But pushing that aside, a doping athlete competing against clean athletes obviously isn’t fair.”
Throughout the evening, most skaters carefully danced around the subject. But Liu admitted it had been a topic of conversation among teammates. Several skaters said they’d struggled to escape it on social media. Reporters crowded around first-time Olympians like Mariah Bell to ask not about their performances, or their experiences in Beijing, but about the scandal. Its looming presence over figure skating’s pinnacle, multiple athletes said, was “sad.”
“The whole thing is really sad,” Sweden’s Josefin Taljegard said.
Tuesday night at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium marked one of the more dramatic evenings in the sport’s history, but not for any on-ice heroics. Thirty skaters took the ice, but all eyes in the arena focused on the 15-year-old Valieva, who right at this moment happens to be both the most talented and most controversial female skater in the world.
“I am so angry. The ladies event tomorrow is a complete joke,” former Team USA skater Adam Rippon said Monday on Twitter. “So many Olympic experiences stolen from clean athletes who got here without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. What a shame.”
The CAS leaned hard on Valieva’s youth as a mitigating factor against her guilt, and some fellow skaters expressed sympathy. For many, though, the explanation held little weight.
“We have to remind ourselves that she is just 15 years old, a minor, and I know more than anyone what it’s like to compete at an Olympic Games at 15 years old,” former U.S. skater Tara Lipinski said on NBC just prior to the competition. “But a positive [drug] test is a positive test. She cannot skate.”
“If you can’t play fair, then you can’t play,” Lipinski’s announcing partner Johnny Weir said, “and it is a shame because she is a tremendous athlete.”
Switzerland’s Alexia Paganini said: “I feel sorry for her, but rules are rules, and they should be followed.”
Liu said: “I feel like if you can skate here, you can also get sent back [home].”
All of which charged the air at Capital Indoor Arena beyond anything the Olympics had seen this year. Chinese fans filled almost all available socially distanced seats in one half of the arena. Media from around the globe flocked to the stadium in numbers far greater than those for Nathan Chen’s gold medal performance five days earlier.
Valieva, the 26th of the 30 skaters who performed, took to the ice while Karen Chen of Team USA awaited her scores, smoothly skating the length of the rink as a warmup. She skated over to her coach for a few last words of advice, hopping up and down on her skates and looking, for just a moment, like a 15-year-old.
She began her routine at 9:51 p.m. local time, skating to “In Memoriam” by Kirill Richter. She moved with a grace and fluidity that set her apart even in an arena full of Olympians, and the music — and the constant whirr of photographers’ shutters — were the only sounds in the building. Over the course of four minutes and 27 seconds, she landed a sequence that included a triple flip, a triple axel and a triple flip/triple toe loop combination. She had only the briefest of stumbles, but they — and perhaps the weight of the past week — were enough to leave her in tears as she wrapped her routine.
After the music stopped, she continued skating for another minute, pain and tears evident on her face, before finding her way to the edge of the rink to clutch a small stuffed animal and wait for her scores.
NBC’s commentators pointedly declined to discuss Valieva’s routine in detail. “All I feel I can say is, that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics,” Weir said.
Valieva and teammates Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova — dubbed the “quad squad” because of their ability to pull off the incredibly difficult quad rotation in competition — could become the first trio of women from the same nation to capture a Winter Olympic podium.
Valieva ended up with a score of 82.16, vaulting her into first place. Shortly afterward, Shcherbakova and Trusova snared the second and fourth spots, respectively. Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto is in third.
After she finished, Valieva stalked through a “mixed zone” past dozens of reporters, her head down, her face sullen. She clutched her stuffed animal, walked briskly, and did not stop to take questions.
The Russian delegation later opted not to bring Valieva to the post-competition news conference. Shcherbakova and Sakomoto were both asked about Valieva, but declined to comment.
“I will not say anything about this situation, sorry,” Shcherbakova said.
Valieva’s qualification means that Thursday’s long program will add a 25th member. If she medals, there will be no ceremony, as the IOC is guarding against the possibility of her being disqualified after the fact.
She will return to the ice in 48 hours with the chance to capture what would be one of the most controversial gold medals in Olympic history. It has overwhelmed the event, and these Games, and the athletes partaking in them, and that’s what frustrates them.
“I think a lot of us are really excited about the skating here,” Paganini, the U.S.-born Swiss skater said. “And then that’s not really what we’re focusing on.”
“It’s a little upsetting,” she said, “that now the conversation is putting the sport in a really bad light.”