Heartbreak and Concern for Kamila Valieva Overshadow Figure Skating CompetitionFebruary 17, 2022
There will be a medal ceremony. But nobody imagined it would happen like this.
In a shocking turn of events at the women's free skate Thursday, Kamila Valieva, the Russian national champion and the overwhelming favorite coming into the Beijing Olympics, faltered in the worst performance of her elite career.
Reeling from days of media scrutiny after her positive doping test became public, Valieva fell multiple times during her free skate and walked off the ice in tears, finishing fourth. She was heartbroken; compatriots Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, who came in first and second, respectively, were stunned. Trusova sobbed, her makeup running down her face.
Japan's Kaori Sakamoto, sixth at the most recent world championships, won the bronze with an incredible performance. Her tears were joyful.
But their victories are sadly overshadowed by the week's events and the toll they have taken on one young athlete. After it was revealed last week that Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that she could still compete at these Olympics, the spotlight on her shone brighter than it ever should have.
The situation, likely the result of child neglect and an institutional failure to wrangle Russia's doping problem, tainted the free skate competition—how could the other figure skaters compete knowing their biggest competition had potentially cheated? Thursday's result, though, highlighted the fact that no one is more damaged by this than one 15-year-old girl.
Valieva's finish was a rough end to what was otherwise a thrilling competition, as the other top competitors excelled despite the media frenzy. Athletes are used to putting on blinders and focusing on their own performances when it counts, and Thursday, it showed.
Current U.S. national champion Mariah Bell, competing in her first Olympics at 25 years old, had a beautiful free skate, as did compatriot Alysa Liu, who evoked joy throughout her performance; the two Americans embraced after Liu's skate. South Korea's You Young hit a technically incredible skate and broke into tears of joy. Japan's Wakaba Higuchi landed a triple axel, the first successful one of the night. And Trusova and Shcherbakova each landed multiple quads to put them solidly ahead of the rest of the field.
The skaters' ability to compartmentalize was all the more impressive considering the inherent unfairness of this event. Valieva's positive test and the subsequent ruling that she could compete anyway exposed double standards regarding Russian doping.
Alongside Valieva's case, two athletes have tested positive for banned substances and have been suspended from these Olympics. Valentyna Kaminska of Ukraine tested positive for a banned substance and was provisionally suspended, the International Testing Agency reported. The same goes for Iranian skier Hossein Saveh Shemshaki.
While Valieva's case is unique in that she's a minor, having to compete as a clean athlete against her would make any competitor jaded going into this free skate. And after the IOC announced it would cancel the medal ceremony if Valieva placed top-three, athletes competed knowing that if they medaled, they might not even get to participate in a ceremony, and any potential bonuses or sponsorships that came with it would be left in limbo.
Valieva's errors put that potential controversy to rest, but her destiny is still in question as she now faces a doping investigation, as well as an investigation into her support personnel, such as her coaches. According to the WADA Code, she will have the option to have her B sample—one collected at the same time as the sample that tested positive—tested. She will also have the right to participate in a hearing.
It's unlikely that things will go her way or that a test of her B sample will have a different result, though, given new evidence that emerged around the time of her short program. The New York Times reported Tuesday that Valieva actually tested positive for multiple medications that could help improve performance, though, of the three, only trimetazidine is banned. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that WADA considers this a detriment to her defense that she tested positive from an accidental contamination from grandfather's medication. As a minor, though, Valieva will likely not be found to be at fault and might face no sanctions at all.
Still, this doesn't bode well for Valieva's future in the sport. It's unclear if she would have been sent to compete at the 2022 World Figure Skating Championships on March 21, but even if she's cleared to compete by that point, her coaches may not be. And with such a short expected lifespan on her career—coach Eteri Tutberidze's trainees rarely compete past 17—these Olympics could very well be Valieva's peak, a heartbreaking idea, considering her incredible talent.
Most troubling, though, is the prospect of lasting trauma that this experience will likely inflict on such a young girl. The distress is amplified by the cruel irony that the CAS decision to allow her to continue competing, setting the stage for this awful scene, was an attempt to avoid "irreparable harm" to Valieva.
Until now, her stoicism has been a trademark of her skating. The ability to compete at such a high level at only 15 displayed a remarkable emotional strength; by comparison, her free skate was disastrous and a revealing look at how the controversy has rattled her. This, combined with what many already suspect about Tutberidze's coaching methods, paints a troubling picture about her mental state as well as the state of the sport.
Justice for Valieva and the rest of the athletes will only come, though, if things change so that something like this can never happen again. Russia showed in Beijing that the slap on the wrist of not allowing athletes to compete under their own flag is not enough of a disincentive to cheat.
It's clear that the country should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics, full stop, until the World Anti-Doping Agency can get the country's doping under control. In addition, the International Skating Union needs to question, once again, whether 15 is old enough to compete at the Olympics and launch a new initiative to make child welfare a priority in the sport.
Until that happens, Valieva's struggle will be in vain.