Thursday 11 May 2023

Ruminations on a year-old Olympics

By Luu - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Somewhere, in a world that is not this one, Kamila Valieva performs for the world.


I know it is not our world, because in that world, there is a presence of the divine. Things go as they should. As we expect them to. And a fifteen-year-old girl can showcase her talent for a while, and let herself be forgotten when she is done.


But that is not this world.


In this world, a series of mis-steps takes place and the fog of a war perpetrated by her country hangs over her, and the sport she has dedicated her life to. In this world, that means there will always be that asterisk against her name, that doubt in our minds as to whether she really ever was all that.


A Year on Ice


This essay began last year. That is to say, I meant to write it almost a year ago exactly, when the events had just happened. It would have been a different beast had it been written then, I dare say. My approach at the time had been emotional, seeing the events that occurred as a human tragedy. As time passed, however, and the essay remained half-written, the actual unfolding of matters became more political than personal, and I found myself realising I could not possibly write it the way I had meant to.


But still, a recounting of events might help clarify my own thoughts on the matter, I think, and to that extent perhaps it is time to revisit this, with the perspective that time has given.

Racking up the scores

To begin with, you need to know that there are six figure-skating events at the Winter Olympics these days:

1.    - Men’s Singles FS

2.   - Women’s Singles FS

3.   - Pairs

4.   - Ice Dance

5.   - Team Event

6.   - The Gala


The Singles events are self-explanatory. Individual skaters compete against each other in one short and one long program. Highest cumulative points wins.


The ‘Pairs’ and ‘Ice Dance’ events consist of a pair of two skaters performing, one male and one female, in one short and one long program. The pair with the highest cumulative points wins.


As the total number of skaters a country is allowed to send is restricted to 18 (9+9), effectively a country sending a full slate of skaters can send 3 Men and 3 Women singles skaters, and 3 pairs each in Pairs and Ice Dance. Most do not send that many; apart from the USA, Russia, Japan, China, South Korea and Canada, most countries struggle to have more than a few world-class skaters.


In the Team Event, a participating country nominates one person / pair from their slate for each of the programs (this means they can send a different skater/team for the short and long program as well). There is a scoring system where the top finisher receives 10 points and the next one 9 and so on. In short, winning by a huge margin is not particularly helpful, as long as one wins. By contrast, in the other events, margins matter, because the short and long program scores are added up.


The Gala is a pure exhibition of skating skill, with no scoring. It functions like a closing ceremony of sorts for the Figure Skating events. It is just a lot of fun and camaraderie.


A brief digression on scoring


The judging in Figure Skating, as in any sport with subjective ratings, has been the subject of controversy. For figure skating, the boiling point came about in 2002, when the Pairs Skating event at the Olympics in Salt Lake City ended with the Gold being awarded to the Russian pair over the Canadian pair, though the Canadian pair seemed to have been better on the ice. Later, one judge claimed she had been coerced by the Russian Federation (they will appear later in this piece as well, in equally-unflattering form). 

And that is how they ended up with two gold medals being awarded that year

As a fallout, in 2004, the scoring system was changed. Explaining it in detail would end up leaving a reader knowing less than they did before, so let me put it in as simplistic terms as possible.


A skater’s program has two components—a Technical Score and a Grade of Execution. The TS is based on the difficulty level of elements attempted. The GoE score is based on how well the judges consider the element to have been executed. A certain number of mandatory elements are required to be performed in each program, which varies from men to women’s events and from Pairs to Ice Dance. 


An ’element’ here, is what we would perhaps call in layperson terms, a ‘move’. A jump (both feet leave the ice) is an element. A combination jump (two or more in succession) is a separate element. A spin (rotation on the ice) is an element. A step-sequence is an element.


As should be obvious, the more difficult an element, the higher its technical score. Therefore, a slightly lower GoE for a more difficult TS element can lead to a higher overall score than a perfectly-executed element with lower difficulty.


Onward, Olympians!


The Team Event was held first, as always. 


Russia (competing as Russian Olympic Committee, for reasons to do with their history of doping athletes) was seen as a narrow favourite to win long before the actual event. This has not always been a given, however. While Russia has been dominant in Women’s Singles figure skating since 2014, the best men’s singles skaters have been from Japan or the USA, while pairs skating has had China and USA sharing laurels with Russia. Therefore, while Russia, powered by Evgeny Plushenko (now a coach) and Yulia Liptnitskaya (now a happy stay-at-home mother), won Team Gold in 2014, it was Canada whose legendary pair of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir powered them to Team Victory in 2018.

But as the date for the 2022 Olympics came closer, the Russians would have had good reason to fancy their chances.

The reason for this, was the emergence of not one skater who was the best in the world (as Yulia Lipnitskaya had been considered in 2014, alongside the Korean Yuna Kim), or even two (as Evgenia Medvedeva and Aliza Zagitova would be in 2018), but because they had SIX  skaters who stood ahead of the rest of the world (Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto had the seventh-best score that season; everyone scoring higher than her was Russian). In fact, such was their embarrassment of riches that they left Liza Tuktamsheyeva, a former World and European Champion, back at home, and the injury to Alina Kostornaia, 2020 European Champion, did not faze them either.

Yulia Lipnitskaya

Behind the Russian dominance – Quads! Quads! Quads!


The Russian dominance in Women’s Figure Skating had truly begun with their team victory and singles victories in 2014. But they were far from the leading country before that. In fact, at the turn of the millennium, it was Japan and South Korea that had been at the forefront of Figure Skating. Yuna Kim, Miki Ando and Mao Asada were the biggest names in the FS world. But there had been ‘rumblings’, as it were. Adalina Sotnikova (now running her own coaching school), Liza Tuktamshayeva (still one of the best skaters in the world) and Yulia Lipnitskaya, all of 16, 18 and 15 respectively, had made it to the medals at the European and World Championships in 2012-13. 


I have written about the controversy surrounding what happened in Sochi at the 2014 Olympics elsewhere, but chatter aside, the takeaway was that a strong focus on technical difficulty made for higher scores. 


In the world of Figure Skating, the highest difficulty has always been attributed to the ‘jumps’. This makes sense—try jumping in one place, on the ground. Now try spinning in the air as you jump, a complete 360. Now imagine doing that on ice, where you have to launch and land on a single blade.


Indeed, in the early days of competitive figure skating, the jump was seen as un-ladylike and was not permitted for women, who were assessed on the elegance and form of their ‘figures’ (the patterns formed as they skated on the ice). Sonja Henie, the Norwegian Hollywood-film-star-to-be, was the first to consistently land jumps, and won three Olympic Golds in the thirties doing so.

Hollywood Star? Yes
Olympic Gold Medal? Also yes.

To write about the development of the art of jumping, from Henie to Midori Ito, from Bonaly to Trusova would be a task for a separate essay. Suffice to say that the jumps take a long time to evolve. Depending on how the skater launches and how they land, a jump can be a toe-loop, flip, a lutz, a loop, an axel or a salchow. 

An axel is generally more difficult than a salchow which is more difficult than a lutz.


Remember trying to jump and spin a 360 on the ground? By the ‘70s, skaters were managing to do three spins before landing - the triple-salchow, triple-toe-loop and so on. But  it would take till 1988 for a triple-axel to be landed in competition (Midori Ito, Japan)—fully thirty-five years after Carol Heiss landed a double-axel, and one-hundred-and-five years after Dorothy Smith landed a single-axel.


The triple-axel would remain an elusive achievement for long after Midori Ito brought it the world. Most skaters did not attempt it, considering the risk of failure and injury to be more than the potential score. However, a skater that DID land it, could hope to medal due to the high weightage they could get out of it.


As of 2014, triple-axels were still very rare, with only Mao Asada having one, and that still inconsistent.


As of 2022, every top Russian skater had it. 


And the cream of the crop—Trusova, Valieva and co., were doing Quads.


A quad, as the name suggests, involves four spins. Four spins, in the air, launching off ice and landing again, on that single blade. Not the quad-axel, yet, but the other jumps? They were landing quad-loops and quad-lutzes. It was a sight to behold, a jaw-dropper, when done right.


No female skater outside of Russia has been able to land a quad in competiton other than Alyssa Liu (USA), who only did it as a junior (it is seen a relatively easier for juniors who are lighter and shorter, to do more difficult jumps), and Miki Ando. 

Miki Ando doing Miki Ando things

The quest for a podium sweep


If anything, the Russians seemed confident of a medal sweep, something that had never happened before. And they seemed to have the arsenal to make it happen—


They had Anna Scherbakova, the 2021 World Champion, a delicate, small-boned elfin creature who seemed to dance and jump with otherworldly grace. She, of course, had quads.

They had Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Trusova, winner of a bounty of medals across the world, a striking figure with her knee-length red hair and the gait and demeanour of a goth-rock superstar and an ability to execute feats of jumping others did not even dare to try. She was the first to land a quad-lutz, quad-flip and quad-loop in competition, and her ‘program’ had no less than five quads planned.


And they had Kamila Valieva, the fifteen-year-old reigning World Champion, and the best of them all. The bright-eyed Tatar was a figure-skating artist, her lines impeccable, her form perfect, her jumps breath-taking. If the figure-skating world had a Queen, she was it. She had set nine point-scoring world records already. In a sport of razor-thin margins and subjective judging, she had been undefeated for a year. It’s hard to overstate this. Undefeated. She had won every event she had entered, whether in her native Russia or across the globe in Canada, or Europe or wherever.


Seeing her skate, at the time, made it clear why. Kamila, at her best, is breath-taking. The heart stops; the eyes stop blinking, the mind is rivetted. The rest of the world ceases to exist, there is only the viewer and Kamila, as she blesses the ice with her art, sharing her genius with the world.


Yes,  I know, the word ‘genius’ is thrown about too lightly, indeed, but there are times when it is hard NOT to use it when Kamila Valieva skates. 


The Russians are coming for the Team Gold


When the Russians entered Kamila as their sole singles skater in the Team event (other countries used a different skater for the short and long program to reduce injury risk), it was clear they did not mean to mess around. 


As the Team Event unfolded, Kamila did what she was expected to do, perhaps even more. She did not just win her events, she dominated them by over 50 points from her closest competitors. There was no holding back anything for the singles finals—the girl was the best in the world and meant to prove it. Her long program, set to Maurice Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, was triumphant. It evoked not only the beauty of her sport, but seemed to display the potential of the human body, to push the limits of what you may have thought it possible for it to do, and to do so in a manner so calm and graceful that you would forget the effort behind it as you admired what she did.


She was going to win the singles gold.


The story would play out just as it was expected to.


And the Devil said, “No.”


The story fell off the rails the next day. 


In December of 2021, the Russian National Championships had been held in St. Petersburg. As per routine, urine samples had been collected from the competitors and sent to Switzerland for testing. As of February 2022, the results of those tests had not yet been published. On the day after the Team Event, they were.


Kamila Valieva had tested positive for Trimetazidine, a drug commonly given to heart patients. It was banned by the Anti-doping agency because a healthy person taking it could expect to have enhanced endurance.


At first the situation seemed clear-cut. A ban would be issued, the Russians disqualified from the Team Event and Valieva pulled from the singles competition. The USA would win Gold in the Team Event. The Russians would still win singles Gold and Silver, the only question there being whether Scherbakova or Trusova would finish ahead.


But there is always an appeals process, and the Russians filed it with the CAS, the appellate body. Normally, such a process happens between major events and moves at a glacial pace. Here, it was happening during the event and decisions had to be taken fast. Moreoever, as per the rules, Valieva, at 15, was a 'protected person', meaning she was not to be presumed guilty until proven otherwise, as is the case for older athletes. The CAS, then, ruled that the suspension of Valieva would be put on hold pending the resolution of the appeal.


Meanwhile, the Short Program of the Singles event took place.


Valieva did what she did best. She skated. And she skated beautifully. When it was over, she led the field by 2 points from Scherbakova, who was a point ahead of Kaori Sakamoto (Japan), while Trusova finished a disappointing 5 points behind the Japanese skater.


By now, the world media had picked up on the news, and the world’s attention was rivetted on Beijing.


The Ice is always colder on the other side.


In a sense, it might be a good idea here to take a step back and think about Figure Skating as a whole. It is not a widely popular sport like Football or Cricket, or even Tennis. As it requires rinks and equipment, it’s not even as mainstream as athletics or gymnastics. While there is a passionate fanbase, for sure, most people are ‘casuals’, only noticing when there is an Olympic games going on, and even then, if there is a scandal of some sort (of which there’s been a fair few).


In a sport generally starved for attention and funding, there are few countries that are truly competitive. The USA, of course, is one, and so is Japan, and to some extent Korea and Canada. France and Germany usually have a world-class team or singles skater as does Italy, while China has emerged as serious contender more recently. But while Russia has always been a presence, especially since the late-nineties, it has been since 2014 that they have been the dominant force in Women’s Singles. 


Much of this is fuelled by Eteri Tutberidze and her coaching outfit, Sambo-70. While Adalina Sotnikova, the first Russian to win solo Olympic gold for Russia (at Sochi in 2014, controversially, from Yuna Kim of Korea), was not a Sambo product, the actual title favourite that year, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was. Liza Tuktamshayeva is not a Sambo product either, but Evgenia 'Zhenya' Medvedeva (who can now be found as a host on Russian TV and posing in swimsuits) and Alina Zagitova (who can also now be found as a host on Russian TV and posing in swimsuits), whose rivalry lit up the 2018 Olympics and who won 3 world titles between them, were. For 2022, all three – Scherbakova, Trusova and Valieva were Sambo trainees, and it looked like becoming the culmination of the School’s efforts.

The Rivals - Medvedeva and Zagitova
(Don't trust the smiles. There are probably daggers in the soft toys)

But it was also true that the Russian domination was deeply unpopular. 


While most of the world loved it when Spain dominated the Football stage, or Brazil did, or even the West Indies did, in cricket, the same was not true of Russia’s emerging hegemony over Women’s Figure Skating. Medvedeva and Zagitova, Sotnikova and Lipnitskaya, or the three Quad-Queens of 2022 were not seen with the affection or adoration of tennis or golf rivalries. Their domination was, somehow, resented.


Some of that was justified. Russian performances in sport have been seen as tainted, not only with the scandal of doping (for which they have been banned from competing under the national flag), but also for the association with the dictatorship of Vladmir Putin (whose recent war on Ukraine has led to fractures in many sports over the question of what to do about Russian athletes). 


In a sport with the small but dedicated fanbase of Figure Skating, passions run high, and a good deal of childish hatred and vitriol can come to the fore. For Americans, especially and the American media, which has never quite come to terms with the fact that it has been nearly 20 years since they had a competitive women’s singles skater (Sasha Cohen), resentment of the Russian skaters is a given. To hear them go about it, Russian skaters have their points supposedly inflated, their jumps are not clean, their routines are predictable…insert suitable excuse here. The fact that the identical things could be said about US performance in other subjectively-scored sports is besides the point. And if what-aboutery was to be given its day in the sun, it could have been pointed out that Simone Biles, the 'golden girl' of US Gymnastics, has performed her entire career using methylphenidate (Addewiz / Ritalin) under a 'thereapeutic exemption'. 


The opacity and general thuggishness of Russian official-dom has not helped, and even those inclined to be sympathetic and appreciative of the Russian athletes do not stint in criticising the Russian Figure Skating Federation, and rightly so.


When the news of the drug test result broke, the Russian Federation focussed on the long gap to the results being announced (six weeks is undoubtedly unprecedented and ridiculous), saying it pointed to foul play. There was some merit in the allegation—after all, had the result been announced in a week (elite athletes’ samples are normally tested in three days, and Kamila is nothing if not an elite athlete), or even four, Russia would simply have sent Tuktamshayeva, who would still have been a medal prospect. Valieva would've got a six-month suspension as a minor, and no medals would have been at stake. But they made their case adversarially, resentfully. They made their case like a Russian man, drunk on vodka, standing in the middle of an icy road, hurling insults at passersby.


They don’t like that in the English-speaking world. They don’t like that in America.


The world needs a villain


It was, therefore, a lot of baggage that the Western Media needed to unload, and the failed drug test provided a wonderful landing dock, as it were. Had it been directed only at the Russian Federation, Eteri Tutberidze and the people around Kamila, it might still have been justifiable, but much of it was directed at the athlete herself. A girl who was, let us remember, fifteen, and living under a regime where it can be comfortably inferred she had little-to-no control over her daily routine or what she ate and drank. For the record, the defence offered by Valieva’s family was that she had accidentally mixed her grandfather’s heart medication with her own vitamin supplements. As defences go, it was so disingenuously stupid as to almost feel ‘too dumb to be fake’.


For four days, Kamila Valieva bore the weight of a world’s hatred upon her shoulders. Hundreds of photographers lined every place she might be. Walking from the practice rink to the competition rink, a barely thirty-feet ramp, meant the glare of a hundred flashing cameras. She took to walking with a hood over her face. One can only imagine what she could have been feeling. Or, to be honest, one can’t. 


To be fifteen, and to feel like everyone considers you the worst person in the world?


I’d hope no child of mine ever has to feel that way.


The Olympic Committee, meanwhile, announced that while she would be allowed to compete, in the event of Valieva winning a medal, there would be no medal ceremony (they had already postponed the ceremony for the Team Event—to this day, medals have not been awarded to either Russia, USA, or Japan). As solutions go, it was perhaps the best they could make of a bad situation.


On the day of the long skate, things went as per script for most of the night.


Alexandra Trusova was the first of the medal contenders to compete. She was incandescent. A performance of strength and fury, the red-head burst into the rink like an explosive device and uncorked a record number of quad-jumps, five to be precise, all executed perfectly.

How do I deal with the drama?

Kaori Sakamoto had been the best non-Russian in the world for the last two years. She showed why. She was all grace and beauty, soaring high and gliding free. For all that, she still finished 25 points behind Trusova. 

Always spectacular, always beautiful


Anna Scherbakova glided and pirouetted, spiralled and flowed. She was flawless. Less flashy than Trusova, but more graceful, most would say. She finished with two points less than Trusova, but having a cushion of 7 points from the short program meant she was in the lead overall now.

Yes, I'm that good.

Less than a year earlier, in Tokyo, Simone Biles, at 24 years, older and more celebrated than Kamila, and with the full force of the world media backing her, had withdrawn from competition citing 'mental health' issues. 

Here, in Beijing, Kamila Valieva, at 15 years and reviled by the same media, put blades on ice. Perhaps she never really had the choice to withdraw. If she felt the crushing weight of being the western world’s least popular person (a title she would soon bequeath to Good Old Vlad Putin, but that’s another story), she did not show it. Her face was a mask.

She even had a good first element. But then, the fa├žade broke. She fell. And she fell again. And again. And again.


Kamila Valieva, who had not lost a competition in a year, had fallen four times during one routine. She was still the fifth-best skater that evening, for even with a face barely holding back what must have been a storm of emotions, even as she lived through her dream being crushed under her blades, she never became completely ragged, she never lost her mastery of lines and forms. But even before the scores were put up, even as she left the rink, she broke down. The dam burst, and tears flowed like the Volga that flows beside her hometown.

She was far from the first skater to leave a rink in tears, or even the hundredth. We have seen it before—they skate to the edge of the rink, where their coach or team-mates envelop them in hugs and words of comfort. But for the first time on this stage, viewers were treated to seeing a skater go to a completely indifferent team. Eteri Tutberidze seemed to scold Kamila for her failures rather than comforting her. It would be slow, agonising minutes before a male team member finally seemed to offer some words of comfort, but he then drifted off again.


The totals were tallied up. Valieva would finish fourth, out of the medals. As she sobbed, she mouthed out, in Russian, “At least now the other girls will get their medals, they won’t suffer because of me.”


In the waiting room, Anna Scherbakova looked on, stunned. Her face expressed nothing but shock. For some reason, there seemed to be no joy behind it, as though these were not the circumstances in which she wanted to win. Alexandra Trusova was furious. She had just pulled off the most audacious jumping routine in skating history, scored more points than anyone else in the long program, and still finished second. Perhaps it was not that she did not realise she was not in the lead until then, but more that she resented the world that did not give her gothic superstardom the due it deserved.


Only Kaori Sakamoto, coming into competition expecting nothing, was feeling it sink in that she was now an Olympic medalist.


The girls came out from the waiting room to the rink. The Japanese officials and coaches crowded around Kaori in joy.


On the Russian side, there was…nothing? 


No one came to congratulate the winners. Everyone mucked around at a distance from one another, letting Scherbakova and Trusova deal with what was happening with all the famed maturity of sixteen-year-olds.


Scherbakova, new-minted gold medalist, looked like she had witnessed a murder rather than enjoyed the defining moment of her career. She walked around, lost.


Trusova, new-minted silver medalist was throwing the sort of tantrum that only a sixteen-year-old with knee-length red hair can throw, screaming and shouting.


Kamila Valieva cried. And cried some more.


There was a medal ceremony, eventually. Scherbakova managed a smile. Trusova did not bother, and had to be coaxed into stepping on the podium. Kaori Sakamoto showed unabashed delight. 


Valieva left Beijing almost immediately. Trusova and Scherbakova stayed to be a part of the Gala exhibition, the former doing a power-packed Wonder Woman-costumed routine involving an element where she skated bent backward until her head touched the ground. Scherbakova dressed like an actual swan, feathers and all. Let’s just say she pulled it off.

That tantrum was one thing, being a superhero is another.

And at last, the circus was over.


Except, it was not.


It ain’t over till the Vlad sings


The Russians were incensed. A media narrative was built up at home that the dope test and everything surrounding it was a deliberate attempt by Western Powers to humiliate Russia (never mind that Russians still won Gold and Silver). Putin made it a point to congratulate Valieva in person, making her a sort of martyr, a patriotic figure for Russians to get behind.

To be fair, it might be a double

At the same time, the appeals process had gone nowhere. Russian authorities were taking their own sweet time to go through the evidence, if at all they meant to go through it. 


The Russian invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, led to the barring of Russian athletes by the ISU (Skating Federation). The fact that this was a double-standard, given other countries have not been banned for participating in military action in other parts of the world (most notably the USA in Iraq), has not been lost on some, though many others consider the ban too little and too late—by rights, Russian athletes should have been banned from competition after the revelations of state-sponsored doping came out years ago.


Still, with no Russians in competition at international events, the banning or un-banning of Valieva became a matter of history rather than live urgency. By the time the 2022-23 season came around, the ISU held its own events and the Russian Fed held its own. Whether the judging at the Russian Grand Prix Circuit, as they called it, meant anything, it’s hard to say. Their events and scores will not count, and the victories amassed by Valieva and Tuktamshayeva, or the up-and-coming Akatieva and Petrosian will mean nothing.


For what its worth, Kaori Sakamoto has won almost every important event organised by the ISU. (Update: As of 2024, that includes three consecutive World Champtionships, the first skater to accomplish the feat since the 1960's.)


For what its also worth, Valieva has continued to skate in Russia. Her form is still perfect, but her jumps are less reliable than before.  


Her fate is in limbo, in theory. Whether she will try and compete internationally, it is hard to say. (Update: As of 2024, she has been banned from competitive skating, retrospectively from December 2021, and her results invalidated. This gives the 2022 World Title to Anna Scherbakova, making her one of the few skaters to win all three titles - The Olympics, Euros and Worlds). All reporting points to her being from an impoverished background, meaning she is heavily incentivised to toe the Government line and do whatever she is told.


A spotlight briefly shone on Eteri Tutberidze and Sambo-70. Tales of her brutal coaching methods bordering on abuse, her bullying, her encouraging of eating disorders and her lack of empathy (this last had been captured on camera very clearly in that long program’s live telecast to the world) were put out regularly. But she is still very active, and still seems to have the cream of Russian talent in her stable. If anything, Putin and his pals in the media seem to continue to lionise her.


Most significantly, Valieva seemed to stand by Tutberidze, even performing a routine in the post-Olympic season that seemed to dramatize what had happened to her as some sort of witch-hunt conducted by Western Powers. The fact that her eyes have acquired a sort of permanent sadness only seems to add to the impact. 


Anna Scherbakova claimed an injury and sat out the whole season after her gold. Apparently she is busy now shilling NFTs to Chinese fans (of which she has many), and it is unlikely she will return to competitive skating.


Only Alexandra Trusova has proved rebellious, quitting Sambo-70, but whether this was a statement, or merely an act of young, possibly foolish, love (her new coach is her boyfriend’s coach as well), we cannot know. She has dealt with injuries as well, but seems determined to continue to skate. (Update: As of 2024, Trusova has stepped away from competitive skating, but continues to skate in ice-shows including with Eteri Tutberidze.) 


There is some talk now of re-admitting Russian skaters to international competition by the Olympic Committee. If the ISU does the same, there is a real possibility that the 2023-24 season could see more controversy. (Update: Not this year.)


It’s also a real possibility that it will get very ugly. In fact, it’s almost a certainty, which is why it might not happen.


So Kaori Sakamoto and the rest will likely rotate in their own orbit, while Kamila and Alexandra remain in theirs, a sport of high artistry tainted by a series of ugly events.


Looking back, it feels as though there were so many ways this could have been handled better. The Russians could have accepted the doping test, pleaded for a shortened suspension period and settled for losing the Team Gold. Valieva would have served the ban (moot, in any case, if Russia would have invaded Ukraine anyway) and returned to competition about now, in mid-2023 or even earlier. Or they could have appealed, pulled Valieva from the singles anyway and tried to hold on to the Team medal if the appeal was upheld. Note that, in either case, they were pretty much assured of winning singles gold through Scherbakova or Trusova. There was no one on the rink that night that was going to come within twenty points of either. And that would have been better, no doubt, for Valieva’s mental health too. She would have been just as much the 'wronged martyr', and she could have come back after serving the ban, still good enough, I am sure, to compete at the top level. After all, though Eteri Tutberidze rarely works with girls after they hit puberty, if anyone has the skill to maintain her standard, it's Kamila.

But its unlikely the Russian Federation was particularly bothered about the athlete, or her longevity. Perhaps all they saw, and cared about, was that 'podium sweep'.


Tainted artistry


Yet, as I said, Kamila Valieva still skates. She skates in domestic competitions, and more joyously, it seems, in ‘galas’, including her ‘Wednesday’ routine which briefly went viral.

And still, to see Kamila Valieva skate, is to forget all the ugliness, the controversy, the rumours and the allegations. To see Kamila Valieva skate is to see a sight it will never not be a privilege to behold. To see Kamila Valieva skate is to remember that, perhaps, in another world, where no heart medicine landed, by error or design, into the glass of someone who clearly never needed it, we could all have agreed we were looking upon something beyond our understanding. 


To have seen that Kamila Valieva skate, would have been to gaze upon the divine.


But that Kamila Valieva skates in a world that is not this one.

And that, I think, is a sad, sad thing.



  1. This was a lovely albeit extremely sad read. I guess such are the times we are living in that all things lovely must be tainted by the world untill the 'otherworldly-ness' of said things is diluted and the stature diminished to just about competent human levels.

  2. This was a heartbreaking read. Can’t imagine the weight that was on that child’s shoulder. Someone so talented yet, weighed down by misfortune. It was well written, as we would expect from you. You have conveyed the pain beautifully. Hope someday Valieva gets the recognition she so richly deserves.

  3. What a masterful, riveting piece - with foreshadowing of events to come and digressions heightening the suspense and cliffhangers egging me on to read. I would have never read this long tale on wikipedia etc., in your words it was so informative and engrossing.

    What a sad tale. My heart broke at that Fell. And fell. And fell. And fell. Wasn't the minimum age increased in gymnastics? It should be in Figure skating and in general in all high pressure, competitive sports, where it is low. Inhuman pressure for a 15 year old.

    This piece should be published in sports magazines.