BEIJING – The Kamila Valieva scandal has become a dark cloud over these Olympics, threatening to ruin the moment for all of her competitors, distracting one and all from everything that once was considered good about these Games.
Tuesday night, we found out that the Kamila Valieva scandal also is significantly affecting Kamila Valieva.
The 15-year-old Russian who was allowed to skate here despite testing positive for a banned substance less than two months ago was uncharacteristically shaky and uncertain in her 2 minute, 40 second short program.
Valieva, who has dominated her sport during this Olympic season, took off awkwardly 25 seconds into her performance on her opening jump, her triple axel. She clumsily stepped out of it, but didn’t fall. It was a jarring image of uncertainty, even weakness, for a skater as lyrical and magical and dominant as Valieva.
When her music stopped and she was done, she held her hands in front of her eyes as tears suddenly came. They came again when she was met at the boards by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who is now under investigation for her role in the doping scandal.
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But for all this drama, when Valieva’s score popped up, it was good enough to take the lead, then maintain it as the final four skaters could not reach her lyrical heights. It’s not a large lead, 82.16 points to 80.20 for her training partner Anna Shcherbakova, but she’s in first place.
That result was, well, awful. The young woman – girl, actually – who should not be in the competition is leading the competition.
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This was all wrong. Valieva was cheered by the sparse crowd when she was introduced, cheered when she took the ice, cheered when she finished. A small but boisterous Russian delegation contributed mightily to that cause, but still – a young woman who doped was welcomed as if she was any other competitor.
Each day that goes by, the stain on these Games, and the Olympic movement in general, grows darker.
The evening was a study in contrasts. On the ice, there was the competition, the show, the music, the costumes, the glamour of it all.
Backstage, behind the blue curtains, there were tough questions and difficult silences, as one athlete after another had to deal with the travesty that Russia has wrought.
There was the athlete skating with the positive drug test for the banned substance trimetazidine, which increases blood flow to the heart and helps with endurance. She of course was the winner of this stage of the competition, with Thursday night's long program yet to come.
And then there was the woman in 11th place, American Mariah Bell. Somehow placements end up meaning so little when integrity is on the line.
"I’m a huge advocate for clean sport and I’m 25 and I’m really proud of how I’ve led my career to this point," Bell said to several dozen journalists from around the world gathered around her in the mixed zone, reflecting the intensity of the interest in the Valieva scandal.
While she specifically did not speak of Valieva, other than to say she did feel sympathy for her, she was pleased to discuss the importance of drug testing in her career.
"For those of us who take that seriously, it’s terrifying when you’re tested because you don’t want to miss," Bell said. "I’m like, shoot, I took Tylenol PM, is that OK?' When the integrity of sport is top of mind, it’s something that you’re concerned about. I’ve never missed a test. They come to my house at 6 a.m., at 10 p.m. I had urine and blood samples taken. It’s just commonplace when you’re at a high level.
"I think I’ve missed a couple training sessions at home. They’ll show up and I’m notorious for taking a long time to do the test. So I’ll be like, sorry Raf (her coach Rafael Arutunian), I was doing drug testing."
Few know what Olympic-level athletes go through for the privilege of representing their nation.
"I want to make sure that I have integrity and I’m doing everything I can the right way," she said. "I’ve always, always done that and I will continue to do that. I’ll text team doctors and triple triple check that everything’s OK to be taken."
With that, Bell said thanks and walked away, her gait confident, her head held high. An hour and a half later, Valieva came by the same corridor of the interview area. She walked solemnly, sadly, her eyes focused somewhere far away.
The scoreboard said she was the winner, but was she, really?
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamila Valieva leads after short program, but Mariah Bell shows class