BEIJING — With the world watching, Kamila Valieva fell just short of the podium.
The Russian skater whose story dominated the Olympics struggled in her free skate, falling from first place to fourth. That dropped her out of medal contention and rendered irrelevant the question of how to award medals to skaters in a competition that would have, as an IOC spokesman put it earlier in the week, an asterisk beside it.
Instead, it was Valieva's Russian teammate Anna Shcherbakova who took gold. Alexandra Trusova, also from Russia, took silver, while Japan's Kaori Sakamoto took bronze.
The 15-year-old Valieva came into the evening with the eyes, and the judgment, of the world upon her. She had tested positive for a banned heart medication on Dec. 25, but the positive test was only revealed after she’d skated her first team event earlier this Olympics. She’s spent the last week as a symbol — of Russian corruption, of easily manipulated young Olympians, or of the dominance of Russian athletes, depending on one’s perspective.
She may be suffering the scorn of the Western world, but Valieva has the full-throated support of her own nation. Russia’s Olympic Committee blasted the idea that Valieva’s medals are “preliminary” and that her wins deserve an asterisk.
“The results of the team tournament are not subject to revision under any circumstances, regardless of the results of the disciplinary investigation against the athlete,” ROC president Stanislav Pozdnyakov said in a statement. “Anti-doping rules are formulated in such a way that the revision of the results in the team tournament could take place only if the alleged anti-doping violation had been committed during the Olympic Games.”
Meanwhile, the IOC pursued what has become its go-to strategy for the Valieva question at these Games: dodge, sidestep, roll out acronyms and point in other directions, effectively doing all it can to kick this golden can down the road just a few more days, when the Olympics will end and the world’s attention will move on elsewhere. IOC spokesman Mark Adams indicated that Valieva would not be required to speak at any post-competition news conference, calling it “very unlikely” she would talk.
Through it all, Valieva has continued to do what she does best: skate. She’s such a phenomenally talented skater, pharmaceutically enhanced or not, that her misses are more valuable than others’ landed elements. She ended Tuesday night’s short program in first place with a score of 82.16, so strong that only one non-Russian skater, Sakamoto, was within eight points of her.
Valieva stepped onto the ice to the same reception her teammates Trusova and Shcherbakova received — raucous applause from a loud contingent of Russian fans. Her planned routine included three quads — the most difficult element in women’s figure skating — and seven triples, a slate of staggering difficulty. Skating to Ravel’s “Bolero,” she began her routine totally at peace on the ice, smoothly progressing from one element to the next. But two stumbles, one minor, one enough to send her entirely onto the ice, torpedoed her chances of winning gold.
When it was over, she buried her face in her hands, and left the ice with tears in her eyes, a heartbroken look on her face. No one hugged her as she came off the ice.
Valieva wasn’t the only story at of the event, but she overshadowed every other one. The 24 other skaters — an extra was added to the program, another firewall against a potential Valieva disqualification — competed knowing that a cloud hung over the entire event.
“It’s definitely tough with the situation that has been unfolding, and probably continuing to unfold, to stay focused because there’s so much buzz around this event,” American skater Karen Chen said after her performance. “It’s really hard to stay focused.”
Trusova, despite being closer than almost anyone else to the center of the controversy, didn’t seem flustered. A few minutes before Valieva took the ice, Trusova delivered a devastating performance of surgical precision and daring, a five-quad sequence that she landed almost perfectly every time. Her final score of 251.73 points topped the previous best by nearly 40 points.
Shcherbakova followed with a performance that was more grace than power, more quiet precision than bombastic fireworks. She too led off with two quads, proceeded through her routine, and ended with a spin that brought the Russian delegation to its feet. Her 255.95 topped Trusova’s, guaranteeing the Russians at least two medals.
Then came Valieva, who wasn’t able to put together the kind of routine that would win her even a bronze. Sakamoto held on to third place, nine points better than Valieva, who finished fourth. It was the first time since elevating to the senior level in October that she'd lost.
Once the results were announced, the crowd remained oddly silent. Valieva stayed seated on the judging bench for a long time, finally walking underneath the stands to the cheers of a few Russian fans.
At the other end of the ice, workers prepared for a medal ceremony. There was no need to postpone it now.