The applause for Anna Shcherbakova still echoes through the hall when a young girl appears from the wings. There she is. Last of all participants, the right of the front runner, the figure skater with the best short freestyle. The Russian Kamila Valieva takes off her jacket, mask and steps onto the ice. The audience in the stadium holds their breath as one. Valieva stretches her arms. She’s ready to start.
The final of women’s figure skating – the freestyle – is traditionally one of the main draws at the Winter Games. It’s no different in Beijing, but this time the sport has been getting all the attention in both positive and negative ways for two weeks.
Before the Games it was already known that the Russian Valieva is the best figure skater of the moment, perhaps the best ever. She combines grace, suppleness, balance, strength and precision like no other and is the holder of several world records. Her nickname: ‘Miss Perfect’. In last week’s mixed nations competition, she became the first woman at the Games ever to jump a quadruple – a Quad, four rotations in the air – successfully executed. Russia, present at the Games as the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) because of previous doping scandals, became first thanks in part to her.
Valieva is also a fifteen-year-old girl, 160 centimeters tall. A girl who always has a cuddly cow with her, who moves her head to the rhythm of the popular hit song while skating my way from Calvin Harris, and who has a keeshond named Leva, received from her fan club.
No final verdict
A drama has unfolded around Valieva in the past two weeks. First, the medal ceremony for the Nations Cup was postponed. It soon became clear that the reason for this was a doping test by Valieva. In December, she tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart drug. The test result was announced the day after the country competition, after which the Russian doping agency suspended her. Valieva and her coaching team appealed, the suspension was lifted, and when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) appealed the suspension to the International Sports Tribunal CAS, the appeal was rejected on technical grounds. The final verdict on Valieva has not yet been made.
For example, she was able to compete in the short freestyle last Tuesday, subject to reservation. When she stepped onto the ice in a purple dress, the Chinese onlookers cheered as if she were coming for the motherland. Russian flags appeared in the audience.
Her first jump failed, to the audible shock of the audience, but the Russian remained upright, skated flawlessly and burst into tears afterwards. She scored 82.16 points, the tenth score ever and more than enough for first place. Afterwards, with the stuffed animal in her arms, she strode through the media zone without stopping or looking up.
The American Karen Chen heard just after her own short freestyle that she will not be awarded a medal for the time being for the Nations Cup, in which the United States came second behind Russia. “I find it disturbing and disappointed, I would have loved to be on the podium,” she said.
Other heart drugs
Virtually every skater got questions about the affair. Also seventeen-year-old Lindsay van Zundert, the first Dutch participant in 46 years – she finished eighteenth with a personal points record in her Olympic debut. “I really enjoyed it and enjoyed every day here,” said Van Zundert. But she wouldn’t say anything about her Russian competitor.
Van Zundert’s coach Carine Herrygers wanted to say something about it. “It’s the Russians again who draw the negative attention, and they’re not just doing it in this sport.” But she also said she especially felt sorry for Valieva. “It’s a 15-year-old who works very hard and probably doesn’t even know what she’s taking in.”
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Lawyers for the Russian team said on Tuesday that Valieva had ingested the banned heart drug when she drank from a glass of water from her grandfather, a heart patient. On Wednesday, that statement was again called into question after The New York Times revealed that Valieva would have taken two other heart drugs that are not on the doping list.
This is how developments continued this week. The IOC decided not to wait for the outcome of the case and created an extra 25th starting place in the final so as not to penalize the other riders if Valieva was later suspended. In addition, the medal ceremony would be canceled if Valieva were to ride in the top three.
Russian self confidence
That the Russians were not discouraged by the prospect of a victory without the glitter of a medal, is apparent at the start of the evening on Thursday. The competition form speaks self-confidence; all three Russian participants included multiple quadruple jumps in their exercise. Seventeen-year-old Alexandra Trusova, fourth in the standings, even tries five. Not a single figure fighter from the rest of the field tries one.
After Trusova (17) lands all five of her quads and sets the fourth ever score with her power freestyle, the equally old Shcherbakova passes it with a graceful exercise, with a total of 255.95 points. Russia one and two, Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto with her technically perfect freestyle without quadruple jumps does not come close and is third.
Then it’s Valieva’s turn. Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ is being used in the Capital Indoor Stadium. The first of her three quads goes well, but on her next jump, she lands wrong, stumbles. Valieva falls twice more, continues to skate stoically and makes a few more triple jumps as if she were stepping back. When the last sounds die away, she makes a throw-away gesture. frustration. Then come the tears.
The applause for Valieva continues until she steps off the ice. Slowly she moves to the waiting room where she will hear if she wins or loses. When her points are announced, the stadium falls silent – as if a valve has been opened. Valieva finishes in fourth place with 224.09 points. Crying, she bows her head.
Further in the wings are the medalists, there is not an ounce of joy in them. As if stunned, they wave uncomfortably at the camera. Now that Valieva is not in the top three, the medal ceremony continues and the two other Russians get the gold and silver. But it feels like Russia has mostly lost.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of February 18, 2022