Gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva finished her disastrous final performance at Thursday’s Olympics and skated over to the edge of the rink, where her Russian Olympic Committee coach began to reprimand her.
Why did you let it go? Eteri Tutberidze demanded, according to translations in news accounts, as cameras rolled nearby. Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why?
Valieva, as even casual viewers knew by then, had tested positive for an allegedly performance-enhancing heart medication in December (her lawyers have argued that the test had been tainted by her grandfather’s medicine). Valieva was nonetheless permitted to compete in Beijing because her young age made her a “protected person.”
In her final skate, her participation abruptly became moot when her performance, filled with falls and stumbles, eradicated her chance at medaling.
The tragedy of Valieva’s Olympic appearance wasn’t reflected in what happened to the elite skater on the ice. That was a bad skate, but bad routines happen. Even GOAT gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the Tokyo competition last summer after a case of “the twisties” made her feel unsafe in the air.
The tragedy of Valieva’s Olympics was reflected in what happened after the teenage girl left the rink sobbing.
After being chastised, apparently, at the edge of the rink, Valieva accompanied her coach to a bench where they waited to find out her scores. Learning she would finish fourth, Valieva covered her face as her shoulders convulsed. She went to a backstage area where another adult propped her up as she continued to shake and cry. An English-speaking escort met her next, attempting to comfort her by saying, “You just carry on. You just walk.”
Eventually she walked out of the camera’s view. Meanwhile the silver medalist, Valieva’s teammate Alexandra Trusova, 17, herself sobbed and could be heard saying, “I can’t see this. I won’t see this.” And the gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova, 17, also a teammate, stood alone, with no coaches or escorts to congratulate her. She clutched a stuffed animal. It was an altogether disorienting end to a bewildering competition.
Watching female athletes compete in certain Olympic events is always somewhat bewildering, for a totally different reason, which is that the most difficult feats are expected to be performed with the widest smiles. Whacking a hockey puck into a net is no easy feat, and the players doing it are allowed to show their work. Grimacing and grunting is part of the game. Swap those shoulder pads for sequins, and suddenly the expectations are different, even when the work is no less grueling. Performers must make landing a quadruple toe loop look like a lark.
Add in the fact that women’s figure skaters are often underage and underweight — all the better to launch themselves into the air — and the expectations become even more bizarre: From the youngest, smallest athletes, we demand the most grit.
It’s a sport of fantasy, played in uniforms of immaculate buns and brave smiles. We pretend the sport is easy; we pretend the girls are hardened women.
What made Thursday’s backstage events so shocking was the crack in the veneer. The lack of performative graciousness, the harsh smear of lipstick and mascara where silver medalist Trusova had cried off her makeup. We don’t know everything that was said or thought among coaches and teammates in the event’s aftermath, let alone in the days and weeks leading up to it. What seemed apparent in the strange chaos backstage was that the competition had not merely tried the mettle of seasoned athletes; it had tormented the psyches of children.
Why had Valieva “let it go,” as her coach reportedly put it, after her foiled triple axel? Perhaps because she was performing on a global stage while at the center of a hullabaloo that threatened both her reputation and her career? Because she was 15 and already had a career? Because that career was possibly over now — the next Olympics will happen when she’s 19, which is ancient in the Russian figure skating program that relies on the physical suppleness and mental compliance of youth? Because bodies do not always do as we tell them?
If Valieva had done what was expected of her and won the competition, the professional commentary would have likely continued to focus on whether she should have been allowed to compete at all. Her loss, and her emotional backstage breakdown, focused attention on a deeper and more persistent question: What are sports doing to their young sequined athletes — their figure skaters and gymnasts? If an extra half-rotation can be achieved by a 15-year-old, but not a 19-year-old, how much do we need that extra half-rotation?
Is any of it worth the feeling of watching a teenager crumble on international television?
“The destruction of a young person,” skater-turned-commentator Johnny Weir intoned gravely on the American broadcast.
“And yes,” said Terry Gannon, another member of the broadcast team. “She is just 15 years old.”