Kamila Valieva deserved better than the grim end to her Olympic dream
We should have known a tumultuous figure skating chapter at the Winter Olympics would have an ending that few could have predicted.
Part of Kamila Valieva's brilliance is her ability to appear supernaturally composed, but a week that demanded as much from her mentally as it did physically took its toll in a performance that must have felt far longer than the burst of little more than four minutes it took up.
Maurice Ravel's 'Bolero' was the soundtrack to a showing in which Valieva was repeatedly, uncharacteristically grounded, stumbling on two quad toe loop combinations and a triple toe loop to the audible amazement of the crowd. She showed immense steel to step up and take fourth place in the singles competition at a Beijing Games dominated by talk of the drug test in December that is said to have revealed a heart medicine banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency in her system.
That her case could take a considerable amount of time to resolve is as inevitable as the headlines and columns that will be devoted to dissecting Valieva's predicament and the Russian Olympic Committee. Doubtless many were poised to paint a bleak picture of the absence of a medal ceremony under the International Olympic Committee ruling that would have been enacted had Valieva finished in the top three, effectively protesting at the decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to allow her to continue to compete at the Games after she helped the ROC to win team gold before the results of her test arrived.
There were times during the Tokyo Olympics when the lack of crowds felt eerie. Here, the scenes as the competition reached its conclusion would have been morbid with or without a ceremony. This was a troubling experience for Valieva which we must hope is not formative, the girl widely considered the greatest skater in the world slumping and holding her head in her hands as she tried to comprehend what had happened.
Perhaps Valieva herself had not understood the effect her ordeal might have on her, anticipating instead that she would be able to slip into her unsurpassable top gear in spite of the most trying of build-ups to the most important day of her remarkable career so far.
It felt forebodingly dramatic that Anna Shcherbakova, the 17-year-old who added the Olympic crown to her world title and is also guided by Eteri Tutberidze, had been scheduled to give the penultimate performance of the competition before Valieva's attempted gold rush closed the show.
That meant the final act was one of shock and despair, leaving a sense hanging in the Capital Indoor Stadium air that the title had been lost. Valieva's innate mastery, which so rarely deserts her, was clearly missing. Watching a 15-year-old leave distraught, never mind a sporting great who had been used by some as an object for rancorous political point-scoring, conclusively put paid to any mood of celebration. "It's hard to be happy when a girl is in such pain," as one fan put it. “I was watching Kamila and from her first jump I saw how difficult it was for her, what a burden it was," reflected Shcherbakova.
Tutberidze is said to have asked Valieva to explain why she "let it go" as she left the ice, then put an arm around her as she sat in stunned silence while the results were read out. There will now be further scrutiny on the hugely successful coach who has been targeted by critics in recent days. But it was Alexandra Trusova, surprisingly, who seemed the most overtly miserable of the Russian skaters in the 'kiss-and-cry' area that the cameras were panning over beyond the rink in the immediate aftermath of this strange spectacle, shouting "I hate this sport – I won't do this anymore."
Some commentators speculated that the backdrop the competition had taken place against had elicited the instinctive-seeming outburst of rage from the 17-year-old. It would be understandable if it weighed heavily on Valieva's teammates to see reports from around the world questioning the validity of Russian athletes competing at the pinnacle of one of the most exacting sports in the world.
Many in the Western media made it clear that they did not want Valieva to skate and have not hesitated to take broader political potshots at Russia, often appearing to purport sympathy for Valieva in an attempt to make their belief that the ROC is receiving some sort of comeuppance more subtle. Some will no doubt have taken some sick satisfaction at what unfolded in Beijing on Thursday.
Trusova put her rage down to being frustrated with her performance and homesick. Notably, she also did not deny or elaborate on her apparent drastic references to her sporting future, although it is not uncommon for competitors twice her age to question the point of their efforts in similar moments of intense disappointment. She also said that her attitude has not changed towards Tutberidze.
Valieva's future, too, lacks certainty. This supreme talent has brought extravagant grace to the sport and it scarcely seems believable that she is in such a position little more than a month after setting records at the European championships.
CAS had allowed her to target Olympic glory because it concluded that denying Valieva her chance would cause her "irreparable harm." That was a victory for Valieva yet at the same time it put her in an impossible position. Already desperate to suspend the Russian skater, the IOC somewhat cruelly decided that there would be no medal ceremony if she achieved a podium position. That contributed to the pressure on Valieva ahead of a final skate that has risked lasting damage to her in the way it played out.
Despite the medals, this was a day that will be remembered for the wrong reasons. Some have already been unable to resist gloating. Now the precocious trio at the center of the storm deserve support and an end to the mud-slinging that has blighted their hard-earned rise to Olympic contention.
By Ben Miller
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.