The women’s figure skating event at the 2022 Winter Olympics was supposed to be a coronation, a milestone event showcasing a trio of talented Russian skaters who had a realistic chance of sweeping the Olympic podium for the first time in Olympic history.
Instead, while there were tears, they weren’t tears of joy but tears of utter devastation. Kamila Valieva (15 years old), who was expected to win gold was tested positive for banned substances but she was permitted to compete. As the world watched her, and questioned her ability to jump, the controversy and pressure caused by that decision had a negative impact on Kamila Valieva. She fell on three out of seven jumps and finished fourth.
Anna Shcherbakova (her teammate), who skated a flawless and extremely free program to win gold, didn’t look like an Olympic champion. Valieva was alone on the backstage hugging a toy animal while all the Russian officials focused on comforting her. Valieva started to sob in pain after realizing that she wasn’t on the Olympic podium and was now in fourth place.
Valieva and Shcherbakova’s teammate Alexandra Trusova, who trains at the same Moscow school, won silver. Trusova also dissolved in tears, saying over and over “I can’t watch this,” but her tears, she explained later, had more to do with her standings. Minutes later, she cried “I won’t go, I won’t go,” to the medal ceremony at center ice, until her coach Eteri Tutberidze finally convinced her to skate out. At the press conference afterward, she said “I did what I could. It is disappointing. Why I was angry, why I was disappointed — for the first time I skated with five quadruples, I waited for this moment for a long time.” In the past, Trusova has expressed frustration with her sport and the judging, and elaborated in Beijing by saying “I was trying to achieve some lofty goals, to have more quadruple jumps. This would be my chance to win. This was not the case for long. That’s how it is.”
It was the latest in a roller coaster week for the skaters. Sports officials, athletes and fans have all weighed in on Valieva’s eligibility to race in Beijing. Sarah Hughes, 2002 Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes was moved by the outcome. tweeted, “This is a time for reevaluating how things are done.”
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Shcherbakova takes gold, Valieva falls short of the podium
All skaters pass a bulletin board in the corridor leading to Capital Indoor Stadium. It now houses an announcement by the International Olympic Committee. It states that if Valieva finished in the top three, there would be no medals awarded in the women’s event.
As if competitors required one, it was a reminder of their unique situation. Valieva was expected to finish in the top three, so the IOC also allowed an extra skater to compete in the free program, on the assumption that if Valieva’s doping violation case, which is still being reviewed, determines that she should be disqualified, then all the skaters would move up a spot.
However, Valieva skated what is probably her most error-filled program in her short career. Contrary to her confident and controlled skating, Valieva struggled to get through every element. She stumbled out of her first jump (a triple Axel) before putting her hand on the ice to stabilize herself, just like she did in her short program. She then fell from her quadruple loop on the triple-toe combination and stepped back into the quadruple loop. Valieva was frustrated at the conclusion of the program and threw up her hands before she slid back to the kiss-and-cry and broke down in tears.
They were joined by their teammates who both train at the Moscow skate school. Trusova was the European bronze medalist and she made history by becoming the first woman in quadruple jumping. She also made it her mission, attempting to compete with the men, landing five quadruples in four types of jumps. While she managed to land five quadruple leaps, her attempt at the last was deemed too difficult and she had her attempts rescheduled. Despite her lower program component scores than the Japanese and Korean skaters’, her high scoring jumps were sufficient to propel her over 30 points above the rest of her Russian competitors.
But technical skills aren’t the only part of the score, and Trusova’s teammate Anna Shcherbakova showed why. Shcherbakova did not include quadruple jumping in her program. Instead, Shcherbakova chose the flip. But, her presentation of skating and her interpretations of the music impressed judges. To win gold, she scored 4.22 points more than Trusova. Not only is her Olympic victory remarkable given the circumstances around Valieva’s death, but Shcherbakova is also struggling with boot problems and will be breaking in new boots at the Games. Despite her success, she was still conflicted by the circumstance. “I still don’t comprehend what happened,” she said. “I’m overwhelmed that it happened on one hand, on the other hand I feel emptiness inside.”
Top 20 finish for Team USA Women
American women finished among the top twenty. Karen Chen, who ended her second Olympics in 16th place, continued to struggle with the triple loop jump; it’s been her most inconsistent jump throughout the team competition and short program as well. She fell the second time, putting her hand down during her free program.
U.S. national champion Mariah Bell pushed through a few shaky landings but managed to pull off a clean program, minus her planned triple-triple jump combination, which pushed her down in the standings to 10th, despite an emotional skate to K. D. Lang’s “Hallelujah. “You were not going to let anything go,” her coach Adam Rippon told her as she left the ice. “I need a drink!”
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Alysa LIU, Team USA’s sole member to have a triple Axel included in her program did manage it. But it was underrotated which meant she only completed the final part of the 33.5 rotations. She’s been struggling with the jump throughout the season and fell on one attempt during the warm-up before landing one later. At 13 years old, Liu was the first American woman to quadruple jump at competition. She has grown a lot since then and is struggling to maintain her original jumping abilities. Without the points from the triple Axel, Liu was unable to crack the top five and finished seventh as the three Russian women, two Japanese women, and South Korea’s Young You, who earned more points for her program components, surpassed her.
Lost amid the focus on the fallout from the Russian women was the bronze medal won by Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, who finished sixth at the last Olympics and now returns home with a medal.
Doping scandal overshadows an Olympic event
Sakamoto’s moment, however, was sadly overshadowed by the drama occurring with the Russian squad, including the week-long pressure cooker of the event as the skating community has been up in arms over the fact that Valieva was allowed to compete despite the failed drug test. The decision was made by an independent sports arbitration court, but was almost universally criticized by past Olympians, including NBC commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir, who called Valevea’s presence in the competition a “slap in the face” to the clean athletes and to the Olympic movement. 2014 Olympian in figure skating Polina Edmunds tweeted “If you’re taking [a performance-enhancing drug]Long-term, start early and think of how much more you can train, how many reps you are able to do, what kind of run-throughs you have, etc. You’d get quicker results at a much faster rate than a clean athlete.”
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“The doping rules are there and something we all know we have to follow to protect the integrity of the sport,” two-time ice dance Olympic gold medalist Scott Moir tells TIME. “And it’s hasn’t been protected here in my opinion.”
While medals were ultimately awarded in the women’s event, the controversy over Valieva’s case is far from over. Her positive test is still under investigation and medals for team events are dependent on that outcome.
This scandal exposes a flaw in the Olympic system’s pursuit of clean sports. While anti-doping rules are in place, and the punishments for athletes who violate them are clear, ultimately the enforcement falls largely to different countries’ anti-doping agencies. And those agencies have different thresholds of tolerance for violations, as Valieva’s case reveals. Russian Anti-Doping Agency initially suspended Sha-Carri Richardson, then removed it. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency however prevented Richardson from participating in the Tokyo Olympics when Richardson tested positive for marijuana.
Athletes in figure skating are also hesitant to speak out about their concerns about doping. The Beijing skaters declined to answer questions from the media about what they thought about Valieva’s competition. However, they could also be perpetuating this problem by their silence. If the athletes aren’t voicing their thoughts on the importance of clean sport and competing clean, then where does the pressure to enforce doping rules come from? If the athletes aren’t demanding accountability, then why should authorities enforce sanctions? This isn’t controversial. It’s the rules.
The emotional experience of the women’s figure skating event in Beijing will leave a lasting scar on every skater who competed in the event, beginning with Valieva, who will now have to find a way to recover from the mental turmoil of the past week. It should serve as a lesson for doping authorities—enforce anti-doping rules and ensure that violators are punished appropriately.