‘Completely unfair’: As Kamila Valieva returns to the ice, competitors sound off

BEIJING — Figure skating prizes the value of keeping up appearances, smiling for the world while everything’s going to hell.

But the sport can’t smile its way through this crisis. As Russian skater Kamila Valieva continues to skate in the Olympics despite a positive test for a banned drug, her competitors are breaking skating’s longstanding code of decorum and speaking out.

In the hours before Valieva took to the ice for Tuesday night's short program, where she would qualify first ahead of Thursday night’s finals, several skaters criticized her, the Russian system that enabled her, and the courts and commissions that have so far protected her and kept her skating.

“I think it's completely unfair to the rest of the competitors,” Zhu Yi of China told Yahoo Sports. “And of course, to herself, she's an amazing skater, I think. There's no need for doping.”

“Something inside of me thinks it's sad,” Sweden‘s Josefin Taljegard said. “I think it's sad. But, here we are.”

Tuesday night at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium marked one of the more dramatic evenings in skating’s history, but not for any on-ice heroics. Thirty skaters took the ice, but all eyes in the arena focused on the 15-year-old Valieva, who right this moment happens to be both the most talented and most controversial female skater in the world.

Valieva tested positive on Dec. 25 for a banned heart medication. However, because of Russian bureaucratic slow-rolling, the test came to light only after Valieva had helped the Russian team win gold in the team event — a gold so controversial the medals still haven’t been awarded.

The IOC placed Valieva’s fate in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which kicked the can further down the road by giving Valieva the right to participate while withholding judgment on her guilt. Critics of the CAS’s decision, including many of the most prominent names in the sport, weren’t interested in such legalistic hair-splitting.

“I am so angry. The ladies event tomorrow is a complete joke,” former Team USA skater Adam Rippon said Monday on Twitter. “So many Olympic experiences stolen from clean athletes who got here without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. What a shame.”

The CAS leaned hard on Valieva’s youth as a mitigating factor against her guilt, but that explanation held little weight with others who had been literally in Valieva’s exact position.

“We have to remind ourselves that she is just 15 years old, a minor, and I know more than anyone what it’s like to compete at an Olympic Games at 15 years old,” Tara Lipinski said on NBC just prior to the competition. “But a positive [drug] test is a positive test. She cannot skate.”

“If you can’t play fair, then you can’t play,” Lipinski’s announcing partner Johnny Weir said, “and it is a shame because she is a tremendous athlete.”

All of which charged the air at Capital Indoor Arena beyond anything the Olympics had seen this year. Chinese fans filled almost all available socially-distanced seats in one half of the arena. Media from around the globe flocked to the stadium in numbers far greater than those for Nathan Chen’s gold medal performance a few days before.

Valieva, the 26th of the 30 skaters who performed, took to the ice while Karen Chen of Team USA awaited her scores, smoothly skating the length of the rink as a warmup. Valieva skated over to her coach for a few last words of advice, hopping up and down on her skates and looking, for just a moment, like a 15-year-old.

She began her routine at 9:51 p.m. local time, skating to "In Memoriam” by Kirill Richter. She moved with a grace and fluidity that set her apart even from an arena of Olympians, and the music — and the constant whirr of photographers’ shutters — were the only sounds in the arena. Over the course of four minutes and 27 seconds, she landed a sequence that included a triple flip, a triple axel and a triple flip/triple toe loop combination. She had only the briefest of stumbles, but it was enough to leave her in tears as she wrapped her routine.

After the music stopped, she continued skating for another minute, pain and tears evident on her face, before finding her way to the edge of the rink to clutch a small stuffed animal and wait for her scores.

NBC’s commentators pointedly declined to discuss Valieva’s routine in detail. “All I feel I can say is, that was the short program of Kamila Valieva at the Olympics,” Weir said.

Valieva and teammates Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova — dubbed the “quad squad” because of their ability to pull off the incredibly difficult quad rotation in competition — could become the first trio of women from the same nation to capture an Olympic podium.

Valieva ended up with a score of 82.16, vaulting her into first place. Shortly afterward, Shcherbakova and Trusova snared the second and fourth spots, respectively. Japan's Kaori Sakamoto is in third.

After she finished, Valieva walked right past a room full of reporters without saying a word, right behind Chen’s television interview. She clutched her stuffed animal as she passed through the media mixed zone, mask on.

The Russian delegation opted not to bring Valieva to the post-qualifying press conference. Shcherbakova and Sakomoto were both asked about Valieva, but declined comment.

"I will not say anything about this situation, sorry," Shcherbakova said.

Valieva’s qualification means that the skating competition will add a 25th member to the finals. If she medals, there will be no ceremony, as the IOC is guarding against the possibility of her being disqualified after the fact.

She will return to the ice on Thursday night with the chance to capture what would be one of the most controversial gold medals in Olympic history.

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