Let’s say that Kamila Valieva had been suspended in December for taking a banned heart drug. The Russian women wouldn’t sweep the Olympic figure skating podium this week. But they’d almost certainly win their third straight title and collect a second medal, too.
What’s been lost in the global uproar about Valieva being allowed to compete is that her teammates aren’t that far below her. Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova are the reigning world gold and bronze medalists. With or without Valieva, the Motherland still rules.
The Russian program is based on “next teen up.” You win your Olympic medal and you move on — or are moved on by the federation — to make way for the next group of 13-year-olds. This probably will be the first and last Games for the 15-year-old Valieva, who’ll be well past her prime in 2026.
The intramural competition is Darwinian, and it happens every day at the Sambo 70 skating school in Moscow where Eteri Tutberidze, the martinet disguised as a coach, pits Valieva, Shcherbakova (17), and Trusova (17) against one another in exhausting practices.
Valieva wasn’t even the best skater in her rink when she made her senior debut last fall. Now she’s favored at Olympus. Her two bravura performance led the Russians to the team title. And despite stumbling on her triple axel in Tuesday’s short program, Valieva still is in the lead over Shcherbakova and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto, with Trusova fourth.
The Russian dominance will be even more obvious in Thursday’s free skate, when its trio will come with multiple quadruple jumps, piling up points like a five-ringed taxi meter.
“I’m going to be in full fighting mode,” vowed Shcherbakova.
Beating Valieva, who has three quads, including a combination, in her long program, will be a tall order. Despite her flawed axel, she was able to win the short with a crisp triple lutz/triple toe combo, which came with bonus points because she did it late in the program, plus top component (artistic) marks.
Nobody but Valieva’s own teammates can match her in the free skate. And the Americans, who would have had a contender or two in past decades, aren’t in the conversation and haven’t been in years.
Last time in PyeongChang, the US women posted their worst showing in history as Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu, and Karen Chen finished 9-10-11. Their performance in the short this time was worse, with Alysa Liu in eighth, Mariah Bell 11th, and Chen 13th.
Not that much more was expected. The Americans haven’t won the gold medal since Sarah Hughes in 2002 and haven’t made the podium since Sasha Cohen took silver in 2006. Their last world title came that year when Kimmie Meissner stepped up after Olympic medalists Shizuka Arakawa and Irina Slutskaya both opted out.
In an era when the women’s side of the sport has gone stratospheric, the Americans barely have achieved liftoff. Their programs still don’t have the technical difficulty required to compete with the Russians and Japanese.
The 16-year-old Liu, who’d won two national titles by the time she was 14, comes the closest. But while she has the triple axel, it’s been iffy lately, so Liu went with the double in Tuesday’s short and gave up 5 points that would have put her in fifth.
Time was when the American ice queens — the Flemings, the Yamaguchis, the Lipinskis — set the standard for the rest of the world. Their successors are stuck in “That ‘80s Show,” doing triple-triples and struggling to land them cleanly.
Bell fell on the back end of her opening triple-flip combination. And Chen went kersplat on her triple loop.
“I’m super disappointed about my skate,” said Chen, who was fourth at last year’s worlds. “I know I’m capable of much better than that.”
The Americans simply have gone sideways during the last two decades. They don’t learn the quads and triple axel when they’re younger and can’t learn them when they’re older. Bell, at 25, is the oldest US female skater at the Games since 1928. Chen is 22.
During the past quadrennium, the only two new faces to finish in the top three at the US championships were Chen, who’s still adjusting to her womanly body, and Isabeau Levito, the 14-year-old who placed third at last month’s nationals with a sparkling program.
The Russians have so many promising kids that they were able to leave Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, who won gold and silver in PyeongChang, off their national team this season.
The Americans don’t have anywhere near that depth of talent and never could or would create a feeder system similar to Russia’s with its centralized training and cutthroat culture, which reportedly includes near-starvation diets and limited water.
It is a system that produces injuries and eating disorders and creates champions who soon find themselves expendable. Had Valieva’s original suspension been upheld, the Russians immediately would have looked to Shcherbakova.
Valieva may well still be banned and her results negated if her backup sample, which inexplicably has not yet been tested, also comes up positive. Assuming that she wins the gold medal, it would go to the runner-up, who likely will be Shcherbakova. Next-teen-up works on the medal stand. That’s Russia’s fail-safe play.