BEIJING — Grime on glitter is a bad look and the facile sport of figure skating does not wear it well, especially at the Olympics.
The French judge. Tonya and Nancy. And now Kamila Valieva, the Russian teenager who tested positive for a banned heart medication months before the Games, but was allowed to compete here in both the team and women’s events. Her presence so corrupted the latter competition that the International Olympic Committee announced prior to the short program that there wouldn’t be a victory ceremony if she won a medal, that they would hold a “dignified” event at an appropriate time.
In four minutes that must have seemed to her like four hours, Valieva saved them the trouble by flaming out in spectacular fashion at Capital Indoor Stadium on Thursday. She stumbled and then fell off a podium that wasn’t even going to be there if she won a medal. From first in the short program to fourth overall; a second tarnished medal wasn’t in the cards.
If you were cheering for just such a thing to happen, shame on you. How many 15-year-olds can get their hands on heart medication? The IOC investigation into her entourage, particularly the tyrannical coach Eteri Tutberidze and the doctor with an interesting past, ought to be expedited.
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That said, Valieva most certainly shouldn’t have been allowed to skate, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed it, and she melted. The pressure apparently got to her. Again, she’s 15. Valieva barely pulled through a quad salchow to start her program, then stumbled out of a triple-axel and a quad-toe before falling on a triple-toe. She fell again on a quad-toe and the shocking denouement to this disgraceful episode was written.
Her Russian teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova landed enough quads for gold and silver, respectively, while Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto skated a more traditional blend of triples and artistry to a bronze.
Trusova attempted five quads — most men don’t try that many — landed four and rang up a whopping 177.13 in the free skate and 251.73 overall. It wasn’t art, but the judges had to mark it up. Shcherbakova did more than merely generate speed between quads, and edged past Trusova. Neither skate was inspired, and if that’s where the women’s event is headed, meh.
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But there were reasons not to hate the whole night. Mariah Bell of the United States is 25, which practically makes her a fossil in this discipline, and she was awesome, skating to K.D. Lang’s chilling version of Hallelujah. Eleventh after the short program, she moved up to 10th. There was Korea’s Yelim Kim, skating flawlessly to Puccini’s Turandot, good for ninth. Sixteen-year-old American Alysa Liu threw it down too, landing seven triples to finish seventh.
Neither of the Americans does a quad, and the upper echelon in the women’s event is reserved for those who do: Tutberidze’s girls. It’s rarefied air, rife with hints of what Tutberidze demands of the skaters. There are stories of eating disorders that keep them thin enough to twirl that much. There is anecdotal evidence of injury from overtraining. There are hard facts; many of her skaters burn bright and flame out as teenagers, but she comes to each Olympics with a new stable, because she turns them into winners. They are all young, rail thin and able to do things most other skaters cannot.
She brought Valieva here, perhaps thinking the dirt would not seep out. But it stained the ice because the IOC was powerless to prevent the kid from skating. She is a protected person because of her young age, afforded rights other skaters would not be able to leverage.
To think she is being protected by her entourage, however, is both laughable and sad.
Last week, Tutberidze issued what can only be described as the triple-axel of evasive platitudes.
“We are absolutely sure that Kamila is innocent and clean,” she said.
Valieva tested positive in a sample collected Dec. 25. If she was clean last week, it was only a matter of timing. If Valieva is innocent and Tutberidze knows it, then it’s only because the coach and other members of the entourage are guilty. Sure, the kid’s B sample could yet test negative, though it doesn’t happen often, probably not even as often as popping a positive because you shared a glass of water with your grandfather and he’s so chock full of trimetazidine that it seeped into your system. That’s the quad-toe of excuses, straight from Valieva’s crack legal team.
All of that acted as background music as a skater fell and a podium appeared, in what can only be described as theatre of the absurd.