The scene after the end of the women’s free skate was hard to watch Thursday — tears, screaming, and heartbreak pouring from the Russian athletes expected to sweep the podium, their Olympic experience destroyed by a doping scandal involving the country’s 15-year-old star, Kamila Valieva.
Valieva entered the free skate portion of the competition in the lead after a stellar short program that was followed by days of controversy that ended in the Court of Arbitration for Sports determining that she could compete — a decision that caused even further controversy. The stress clearly got to her — the ROC’s star fell twice during the free skate and dropped to fourth place. She left the ice in tears and was immediately admonished by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, for her mistakes.
IOC president Thomas Bach, whose public missteps have added up throughout these Olympic Games, disapproved of the coach’s reaction. In a news conference early Friday, he said, “When I afterwards saw how she was received by her closest entourage, with such, what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this. Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”
That seemed to be the general feeling, as the first place medalist, ROC skater Anna Shcherbakova, sat alone at the side of the rink, and silver medalist Alexandra Trusova, crying, shouted that she hated the sport and would never skate again after failing to win gold despite her record number of quadruple jumps, yelling “Everyone has a gold medal and I don’t.” Scherbakova, after winning gold, told the press, “On the one hand I feel happy, on the other I feel this emptiness inside.” Japanese skater Kaori Sakamoto took home the bronze.
This train wreck of a moment, nauseating and disturbing yet impossible to turn away from, caps off a controversial and heartbreaking Olympic Games. The illusion of Olympic normalcy and excitement that the hosts and IOC were working so hard to maintain is past cracked — it’s completely shattered. Figure skating is one of the most popular sports in the winter Games, and to have this confusion and stress hanging over every moment not only for the young Valieva, but for her teammates and competitors as well, has made it thoroughly appalling and saddening to watch.
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The Olympics love a good narrative — a comeback, an against-all-odds victory, or something of the like. Look at the Miracle on Ice in 1980, or Kerri Strug’s vault on a broken foot in 1996. And there has been controversy before — Russia is competing as ROC after a state-sponsored doping scandal, other athletes have had medals stripped for using PEDs, Tonya Harding hired someone to literally attack Nancy Kerrigan. We’ve had peeks behind the curtain into the insane pressure these athletes face and the lengths that they are willing to go to win gold at all costs.
But it feels now like the curtain is being torn down completely. It began with the revelation that USA gymnasts had been abused for decades, both physically by Larry Nassar and verbally by the Karolyis — every Summer Games, the gymnasts were America’s sweethearts, gaining particular attention in the 2010s. Then, the greatest gymnast of all time dropped out of the Olympics for mental health reasons. A lot of people might be ready to dismiss the Russians for building high pressure situations for their athletes, but it’s not just the Russians.
The Valieva doping scandal is only one part of a worldwide culture that places young girls and women in mentally and emotionally scarring situations. Valieva faces a possible permanent ban from the sport, her competitors may never feel like they truly earned their medals, and none of these athletes are yet 18 years old. They are children. And even adults are suffering from the effects of this pressure — take Mikaela Shiffrin and NBC’s bizarre coverage of her sitting alone in tears after a DNF, of which she had three this Olympics. The narratives are collapsing in on themselves.
Some have suggested that an increase in the age minimum in figure skating, from 15 to 17 or 18 years old, could help alleviate some of the issues that have popped up. Figure skating and gymnastics, both individual sports that favor young women with slight frames, have caused severe body image issues and eating disorders in their young athletes, alongside other mental health problems that many have come forward to speak about after their retirement from the sport.
There’s just a bad aftertaste of this whole situation, and with the coach’s reaction that Bach commented on, there doesn’t seem to be much of a support system for these young athletes being put through the wringer on an international stage. It’s all just very sad for the girls involved, and one has to wonder how much longer the Olympics can go on as they exist in their current form — their image of feel-good, friendly international competition no longer really applies.