Kamila Valieva, the Russian star at the center of a doping scandal, knew immediately that everything had gone wrong.
Her program over, her Olympics over, Valieva broke her last pose with a dismissive wave of her right hand. By then, she was already holding back tears. Those would seriously come soon enough – the bitter, disappointing and emotional end to more than a week of whispers and innuendo that followed the revelation that she had tested positive for a banned drug.
The women’s free skate promised to be one of the most watched events of the Games. But few could have expected its astonishing outcome.
For more than a week, 15-year-old Valieva had been buried under an avalanche of distractions: the integrity of her achievement and her skills were being challenged, as were the character of the adults around her.
She had walked on the ice with the same face she wore all week in Beijing: almost expressionless, doing her best to block out all outside distractions, or at least not recognize them. Now that her free program was over, she buried her face in her hands.
As the crowd responded with their loudest applause of the night, her blank expression returned. After a few mixed waves, she left the ice to be greeted by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. They didn’t kiss.
“Why did you give up? Tutberidze asked in Russian in a scene broadcast live on television. “Why did you stop fighting? Explain to me, why? You let him go after that axel.
Valieva did not respond.
Moments later, waiting for Valieva’s scores, Tutberidze put his arm around the teenager’s shoulders. Valieva then put on a mask, but that did nothing to hide her disappointment. The scores confirmed the worst: the best skater in the world, who had finished the short program in first place, had fallen completely off the podium, her dreams shattered in a series of unusual stumbles and falls. Another Russian skater, Anna Shcherbakova, 17, would be the Olympic champion.
Several members of the Russian contingent were then in tears, including not only Valieva but also the silver medalist, Alexandra Trusova. Within seconds, the rinkside scene quickly turned into a blur of disparate emotions – crushing disappointment, raw frustration, untold pain – as the weight of a doping scandal and the pressures of years of training burst several masked teenagers at once.
“I hate that!” Trusova was seen on camera saying. “I don’t want to do anything in figure skating with my life! Everyone has a gold medal, and not me!
Valieva’s two Russian teammates, Shcherbakova and Trusova, seemed to be struggling to digest the news that they had won gold and silver medals, their personal moments of triumph marred by the chaotic scene. Shcherbakova, 17, seemed unwilling – or unable – to celebrate with Valieva, 15, just a few feet away. Trusova, 17, suggested, at least initially, that she didn’t want to take part in the victory ceremony.
Not far away, bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto of Japan was also crying, her achievement producing what was most likely another outpouring of emotion: joy.
All three would eventually come out for the ceremony that few expected. Called to the top step, Shcherbakova leaped into the air with her arms raised as she accepted her souvenir stuffed animal, which many finalists received as a placeholder before their official medal ceremonies the following day.
“I felt a lot of pleasure because I was at the right time and in the right place and did the right things,” Shcherbakova said. But she quickly added, “On the other hand, I feel this emptiness inside.”
On NBC, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir called the scenes at the end of the competition “heartbreaking” and “devastating”, and made it clear, time and time again, that they thought it was unfair – for Valieva, for other skaters, for viewers around the world – for the 15-year-old to compete, and especially under the crushing weight of scandal and expectation and everything.
“She shouldn’t have been allowed to skate in that Olympic event,” said Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic champion. She added that it made her angry that the adults around Valieva didn’t “take better decisions”.
“It’s not fair,” Lipinski said as the sobs played out on screen, for a 15-year-old who’s dealt with it all.
Fellow actor Johnny Weir posted a video to his Instagram story shortly after the broadcast ended, calling the night “the most bizarre and heartbreaking event I’ve seen in my entire life.”
“I hope it never happens again,” Weir said.
Adam Rippon, who coaches American Mariah Bell, who finished 10th, used a swear word on Twitter to describe the chaotic end of the competition. And on Russian state television, commentator Andrei Zhuranko thundered: “Sports officials, you have broken the most talented figure skater in the world.”
Ivan Nechepurenko, Ilya Gurevich and Ilaria Parogni contributed report.