Women’s figure skating has earned its place as a signature event of the Winter Olympics, anticipated for all the beauty and drama inherent in its demanding test of skill and grace, of talent and style. With daring jumps and dizzying spins, with elegant extensions and flexible poses, ice skaters have captivated our imaginations with everything from the elegance of a Dorothy Hamill to the athleticism of a Surya Bonaly.
What the sport doesn’t need is off-the-ice drama, but that’s all there was as the women’s short program got underway Tuesday morning in Beijing. That’s what happens when the powers that be don’t have the guts to stand up for what is right, when those in charge don’t have the courage to punish those who cheat, when international alphabet-soup agencies refuse to recognize the obvious unfairness in allowing someone to compete despite her having tested positive for a banned substance.
The customary celebration of such a popular night of skating was instead wrapped in a cloak of sadness, with scenes from Beijing unavoidably framed by the presence of Russian 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, who skated despite testing positive for a banned substance.
The clouds of suspicion hung heavy over Capital Indoor Stadium, and will continue to weigh down a competition that the IOC already declared will not have a medal ceremony should Valieva make the podium (all but guaranteed after her first-place finish in the short program) and has not awarded team medals over the same controversy.
As Valieva took the ice, sparkly purple dress flowing behind her cat-eye-lined eyes, it was impossible to think only of her skating.
“To be honest, I almost don’t believe what I’m seeing, seeing her on Olympic ice right now with everything we’ve discovered this past week,” NBC commentator and former Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski said on air. “I did not think this was going to be happening and I don’t think this should be happening.”
Lipinski and analyst partner Johnny Weir, also a former Olympian, have done a lot to elevate figure skating, their obvious love of the sport combined with their incomparable style choices keeping them in the spotlight as much as the skaters they cover. Their sadness and anger radiated through the screen, potently underscoring the sentiment Lipinski had shared earlier in a tweet, that this entire sordid affair “will leave a permanent scar on our sport.”
Weir made his disdain clear with his initial post-skate comment, which said everything despite not saying very much.
“All I can say is that was the short program of Kamila Valieva,” Weir said.
Blunt and succinct. And also true.
Later, Weir did expand on his thoughts, saying, “So many people, myself included, saw her as the favorite for the Olympic gold medal and now it’s such a letdown. It’s heartbreaking to have to reassess the way you feel really about everything in this competition.
“We’ve marveled for many years about the talent in Russia, and Kamila was a very bright spot and a big part of that. With all of this news, I feel so uncomfortable as a skater and a skating fan, even having to commentate on her performance, simply because she should not be able to compete in this competition.”
But this is the Olympics, whose noble “Citius, Altius, Fortius” motto should be replaced by something more banal, like “The show must go on.”
This farce went on because the suspension of Valieva’s temporary suspension (two decisions made by Russia’s domestic anti-doping agency) was upheld Monday by the international Court of Arbitration for Sport. The CAS’s rushed hearing was conducted in response to an appeal filed by the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency, who together wanted to have Valieva suspended from competing in the solo competition.
Valieva’s blood sample from Russia’s national championship in December tested positive for the heart medication trimetazidine, news that came to light only after she had helped Russia (temporarily?) take gold in the team skating competition.
Valieva’s lawyers successfully fought to keep her eligible, stretching credulity by saying Valieva had ingested the medication through the inadvertent sharing of a water glass with her grandfather (during a global pandemic, it should be noted), who has a prescription for TMZ. The CAS further pushed our b.s. meter by citing the “irreparable harm” a suspension would cause Valieva, despite a history of standing stubbornly on an “ignorance is no defense” platform.
Of course, there is sadness reserved for Valieva herself, a young woman undoubtedly caught up in the churning machine that is the Russian Olympic program, the same one unmasked in the damning documentary “Icarus” as running a sophisticated, state-sponsored doping program, down to drilling a hole in the bathroom wall to pass tainted samples out and bring clean ones in.
But sympathy can stretch only so far, and in this case, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.
Every skater has been cheated by this, none more than the clean ones over in Beijing, the ones who have no chance to stand atop a podium and hear their national anthem played, the ones who followed the rules but were left behind.
“To think there is going to be no medal ceremony in the ladies event if she’s on the podium, it’s otherworldly to me,” Lipinski said. “I can’t even comprehend that.
“Imagine how it’s affecting so many other skaters’ lives and their Olympic experiences. We should not have seen this skate.”
As Weir said, “If you can’t play fair, then you can’t play. We are sorry it’s overshadowing your Olympics.”
It’s a sad day for skating.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.