A Russian woman was standing atop the figure skating podium at the Beijing Games on Thursday night.
It just wasn’t the one anyone expected.
Even the fact that there was a podium was a surprise.
Anna Shcherbakova, the overlooked world champion, delivered a clean performance in her free skate at Capital Indoor Stadium to win a stunning gold medal, while teammate Kamila Valieva — at the center of the latest Russian doping controversy — tumbled out of the medals altogether with a mistake-filled end to her Olympic dream.
“I still haven’t realized that my Olympic Games have ended. I just know that I skated clean,” said Shcherbakova, who was second behind Valieva after the short program. “I am so happy that I still haven’t realized the result.”
Shcherbakova landed both of her quads to finish with 255.95 points, edging out another teammate, Alexandra Trusova, who landed five somewhat shaky quads of her own. Trusova finished four points back in second place but wasn’t pleased with the judges, especially given the overwhelming difficulty of her program.
In tears, the 17-year-old Trusova cried out rink-side after learning of her silver medal: “I hate this sport! I won’t go onto the ice again!” Trusova then shouted invectives at her controversial coach, Eteri Tutberidze, with whom she split before returning to last May. And then the same figure skater who performed to “Cruella” from the movie soundtrack finished her tirade by extending her middle finger while holding her plush Bing Dwen Dwen mascot on the awards podium.
It wasn’t clear whether Trusova was flipping off her coach, the judges or the entire world.
“I am not happy with the result,” she said. “There is no happiness.”
Kaori Sakamoto of Japan was happy. She took bronze to break up an expected Russian sweep of the Olympic podium.
“I don’t have the big jumps as others would have, which is a big handicap,” said Sakamoto, who may not have the four-rotation quad in her arsenal but whose artistry was virtually unmatched. “That means I had to have perfect elements.”
She did Thursday night, too. Just like Shcherbakova.
With the fewest quads among Tutberidze’s“Quad Squad,” the 17-year-old Russian instead relied on back-to-back clean programs with peerless artistry and unmatched skill. It culminated in her free skate Thursday night, when Shcherbakova landed her opening quad flip-triple toe loop combination and never looked back.
She followed Adelina Sotnikova and Alina Zagitova in giving her country three straight women’s figure skating gold medals.
“The importance of this is so huge that I cannot fully understand it yet,” Shcherbakova said. “I still haven’t realized that the competition has finished and this is the result. I haven’t understood what has happened.”
Meanwhile, Valieva was inconsolable in the kiss-and-cry area. The 15-year-old phenom was heavily favored to win gold but is headed home with nothing from the women’s program and a looming investigation into her positive drug test.
Valieva was shaky on an opening quad salchow, then stepped out on a triple axel and fell altogether on a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Valieva fell again on her other quad toe loop, keeping her from completing that combination, and spun out on another jump late in the program — though by that point, her fate was sealed.
She did not speak to reporters after a performance that made Shcherbakova’s look all the better.
“Of course, I was very nervous for her during the skate,” Shcherbakova said, “because from the very first jump it was clear that the skate is going very hard and I understand perfectly what an athlete feels at those moments.”
Moments after Valieva departed the arena, workers began setting up for a flower ceremony the International Olympic Committee said wouldn’t take place if she was in the top three. Medals were to be handed out Friday in a ceremony that also would not have occurred had Valieva reached the podium.
“I’m happy that there will be a ceremony, that we are going to get our medals,” said Trusova, who refused to answer any questions about Valieva. “Of course, it will be extremely pleasant for me to receive my medal.”
Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication at the Russian championships in December, but the result was not revealed until last week, shortly after she helped to win a team gold medal that is now also in doubt.
She was cleared to compete earlier this week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that she had protected status as a minor and would suffer “irreparable harm” if she was not allowed to perform. The court did not rule on the full scope of the case, though, leaving that to anti-doping investigators in the future.
The court’s decision cast a polarizing shadow over one of the marquee events of the Winter Games.
“Do I feel sorry for her? I don’t think so,” Sakamoto said after her short program. “I wouldn’t say so.”
Valieva has claimed the drug triggering her positive, trimetazidine, entered her system by accident. But the World Anti-Doping Agency filed a brief stating that two other substances she acknowledged taking, L-carnitine and Hypoxen — though both legal — undercut the argument that a banned substance could have been ingested in error.
“On the one hand, my heart breaks for her because of the acts of the adults in her life and the failures of the Russian and IOC-run systems that permanently cast a dark cloud over her performances,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart told Press. “It’s certain these events weighed heavy on her and hopefully she will get the support she needs going forward.
“On the other hand,” Tygart said, “all of us who value clean sport are sick to our stomachs because these catastrophic failures have tragically robbed clean athletes of their sacrifice and Olympic dreams.”
In the meantime, IOC President Thomas Bach tried to appease angry American skaters by offering Olympic torches to those who helped win the team silver medal, the AP learned late Wednesday. The torches are meant to serve as holdover gifts while the world awaits the resolution of Valieva’s doping case.
“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t able to get our medals,” said Karen Chen, who competed in the team event for the U.S. and finished 16th in the women’s program Thursday night. “I have yet to see the torch, but once that is like given to us, I think it will be such a special moment that we will cherish forever.”
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