The scenes were surreal, full of the visceral pain of two Russian teenagers and the numbness of a third, flooded with the thunderous sobbing of a Japanese woman who is 21, all overcome by the swirling maelstrom that had enveloped the women’s singles event at the 2022 Winter Olympics for a week. There was little joy in any of this when it ended Thursday in Beijing, not for the four skaters who were atop the standings, not for those who watched it, hopefully not for the officials who avoided yet another surreal moment only because a 15-year -old crumbled in front of the world. No asterisks now will be necessary for the medal results. There will be a formal ceremony Friday in which Anna Shcherbakova of Russia will receive the gold, Aleksandra Trusova of Russia the silver, Kaori Sakamoto of Japan the bronze.
Kamila Valieva’s collapse in the free skate made it possible for the International Olympic Committee to continue as planned with the presentation, to pretend that there is something normal about a situation filled with ethical and procedural and judicial questions, many of which likely will not be answered for months, if at all. All we know with certainty is that Valieva skated this week under the shadow of a positive doping test result and the weight of virtually universal agreement that her continued presence as an Olympic competitor was unfair to the other 29 skaters in the women’s field. Valieva had been an utterly dominating skater the rest of the season. But she struggled uncharacteristically in winning Tuesday’s short program. Then she made mistake after mistake in Thursday’s free skate, five mistakes in all, two of them falls. “I saw from her first jump how difficult it was, what a burden it was for her,” Shcherbakova said, through a translator, in answer to a question of whether she had words of sympathy for Valieva. “I understand what an athlete feels. It’s more than difficult to go on to the end after a couple of things like that happen. I will tell her what I think about this later.” Valieva’s initial reaction at the end of her free skate was a flippant wave, as if to say to hell with everything. Tears followed, then more tears, then criticism rather than immediate consolation from her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. Television revealed Tutberidze calling out Valieva for giving up after a mistake on her second jumping pass, a triple axel. Another woman wrapped her arms around the distraught Valieva after she left the ice and headed backstage. At the same time, Trusova, 17, who won the free skate, was crying and angrily yelling at Sergei Dudakov, a member of Tutberidze’s coaching team. According to the Russian twitter account @figureskatingRu, Trusova said, “Everyone has a gold medal! Everyone has! Only I don’t! I hate figure skating! I hate! I will never step on the ice again! Never!” A Russian speaker who watched video of the exchange on my behalf confirmed that translation. The message was clear: Trusova was frustrated that making Olympic women’s history by doing five quadruple jumps, with three getting positive grades of execution, was not enough for her to win the gold medal. She would say at the medalists’ press conference, “I’m not happy with the result.”