The whole world will watch Kamila Valieva's Olympic finale for all the wrong reasons
On Thursday, Kamila Valieva is likely to produce Olympic records for both highest score and least amount of joy — straight lines and strained smiles.
The 15-year-old is both the subject of intense international focus and perhaps the most isolated person on the planet, incapable of trusting anyone or anything around her.
She is a Russian who won’t technically be skating for Russia, because the country was “banned” from the Olympics for systematically doping its athletes. She will likely place first in a competition where no winner will be declared, no flowers or medals handed out, because she is under suspicion of being systematically doped by her country.
This is the cauldron of pressure and politics that Valieva will skate into. The ladies’ long program is now a crushing crucible where she is either participant or victim, or maybe both.
She is only allowed to compete because an inept disciplinary system and a hellacious legal fight allowed it. Her Olympic dream came courtesy of procedures and preposterous stories, such as that the trimetazidine in her sample arrived accidentally via her grandfather’s heart pills.
That absurdity got leaked out from a supposed secret meeting — one more bit of betrayal of the girl — and made her a global punchline. And here we thought it was the little blue pills that helped Grandpa Valieva’s quadruple salchow.
Never mind that the New York Times reported that her test — another personal, supposedly sealed document leaked to the world — showed trace amounts of two additional heart medications.
So a world class teen athlete has three of them in her system? Two are not technically banned substances, but add another world record to Valieva’s tally: most times accidentally contaminated by a grandparent’s meds.
In its own unique way Valieva’s free skate Thursday (8:49 a.m. ET) will be one of the most memorable, deplorable, ferocious and fantastic moments in the history of the Olympics.
You can hate that Valieva will skate and still be fascinated by the theater — a mix of excessive scandal and extraordinary talent all resting on her slim shoulders. In her short program Tuesday she uncharacteristically stumbled on a triple axle but settled into a routine so stacked with difficulty she finished first anyway.
At the end, she broke down in tears. They appeared to be of survival, not accomplishment.
This is perhaps the greatest skater of all time, a quad-leaping, perpendicular spinning force of nature that in just four months on the senior international level secured the three highest scores ever tallied.
Back in Moscow, she is a propaganda tool, an example of western aggression against Russian superiority. The rest of the world, so jealous of her genius, knew it couldn’t beat her. So it trumped up a doping scandal to tear her down. Or so they say.
It’s part of why the IOC won’t give the Russians the visual of a medal ceremony or Valieva a legal precedent of possession over an award that might not really be hers.
“We want to allocate the medal to the right person,” said IOC member Denis Oswald. “Until we have a clear situation then we will not allocate the medal because it would prejudge the case.”
She can compete, for now, but the case continues. The IOC said Valieva’s B-sample hasn’t “yet been opened.” Why not? Who knows? Guilt, and the sanctions that come with it, can still follow. It's why any event involving Valieva will have an asterisk next to it.
Her mere presence on the ice caused a torrent of international scorn, cited as unfair, or as abuse, or typical Russian cheating.
On NBC, broadcaster Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion, said Valieva “shouldn’t be allowed to skate.” Then her broadcast partner Johnny Weir sat silent as Valieva performed, before delivering a savage, if understated, line of disgust at the end.
“All I feel I can say is that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics.”
Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir weigh in on Kamila Valiyeva's short program. pic.twitter.com/LdjY4LQOvv
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) February 16, 2022
No one wants her here. And if she must be, they want her to fall and to fail. Well, other than the Russians, although it's far more likely that it was the coaches and doctors that got her hopped on heart pills than her poor grandfather. Yet the girl is still in their control; its own haunting realization.
All Valieva can do is to compete. It’s what she does best. At 5 she was considered a phenomenon in her hometown of Kazan. By 6, her family moved to Moscow for superior training. By 13, she was just the second female to ever land a quad in competition.
By 15, she was unbeatable, the only woman to ever score above 250 points, then 260, then 270. But how? With what? And at what cost?
She is condemned, not celebrated. A global villain, not a beloved champion. She came here to own these Olympics. Instead she is being cited for ruining them.
“Would we prefer to not have all of this going on?” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. “Absolutely. Would we prefer to have a competition without this distraction? We all would.
“But we are,” he continued, “where we are.”
Where we are is the eve of perhaps the most pressurized skate ever attempted. The women's long program is already a test of nerves and wills as much as skills and speed.
Four minutes on the ice, alone. No time outs. No teammates. No coaching. Nowhere to hide. Every four years the world sends these big-dreaming, fast-spinning little girls and usually whomever doesn’t crack, doesn’t fall, doesn’t meltdown on that frozen sheet gets the gold necklace.
Odds are, that’ll be Kamila Valieva on Thursday. She’s that good. But there'll be no gold. There’ll be no flag or song or podium climb.
It’ll be asterisks and alibis, lawyers and B-samples, angry accusations and doubting looks. Nothing can save her reputation now. Not even a performance of perfection. Although she’ll try anyway.
Here comes Kamila Valieva, the epitome of Russia, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a defiant enigma.