Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, the heavily favoured 15-year-old dynamo at the center of the latest Olympic doping scandal, overcame an early mistake to lead after the women's short program at the Beijing Games on Tuesday night.
Performing in the final group, and with a substantial cloud hanging over her, Valieva nearly fell on her opening triple axel before shakily surviving the rest of her program. She earned 82.16 points, more than eight points off her own world record, but more than enough to top teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova.
Valieva broke into tears as she skated off the ice to await her score.
Shcherbakova, the reigning world champion, was second with 80.60 points after a clean program. Japan's Kaori Sakamoto was third with 79.89 points while Trusova, who fell on her opening triple axel, was fourth with 74.60 points.
The three Russian women dubbed the “Quad Squad,” all coached by the embattled Eteri Tutberidze, are trying to deliver the second podium sweep in Olympic figure skating and the first in the women's competition.
For the last week, Valieva's positive drug test from an event in December put the very possibility in question.
Her positive test for a banned heart medication only emerged last week, after her two brilliant performances in the team competition helped win gold for the Russia Olympic Committee. The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that Valieva should be allowed to compete anyway — without judging the merits of the full case — in part because she is a minor and is subject to different rules from an adult athlete.
Lawyers for Valieva also “brought some doubts about her guilt,” veteran IOC member Denis Oswald said Tuesday, with their possible explanation of accidental rather than deliberate doping with a drug called trimetazidine.
In her first comments since the drug test surfaced, Valieva told Russian state broadcaster Channel One on Monday night that “these days have been very difficult for me. I’m happy but I’m tired emotionally.”
Valieva said the entire process had taught her that adult life “can be unfair to some extent.”
Others pointed out that it was unfair for Valieva to perform having tested positive for a banned substance.
“ I can only speak for myself and that I advocate for clean sporting,” said Mariah Bell, who along with U.S. teammates Alysa Liu and Karen Chen advanced to the free skate. “That’s the whole idea of the Olympics and our careers, in general.”
Valieva and her teammates had plenty of support from the carefully curated crowd inside Capital Indoor Stadium. There were even several fans waving the Russian flag, which is still banned at the Olympics as punishment from the country's state-sponsored doping scheme that came to light following the 2014 Sochi Games.
There also were plenty of fans that sat stoically in the stands when Valieva's name was announced.
Her biggest mistake came on her first element, the difficult triple axel, when Valieva barely held onto the jump through the opening chords of Kirill Richter's “In Memoriam.” She had no such problems with her triple flip and her triple lutz-triple toe loop, and she received Level 4 marks on the rest of her program to climb into first place.
Valieva had looked calm and confident during her warm-up session hours before her short program, though she did fall twice on the vexing triple axel. Each time, the shy, reserved Russian quickly got up and kept pressing forward.
Just as she's done all week, even amid the tension engulfing her team.
Regardless of what happens Thursday night, there won't be a podium presentation or medal ceremony if Valieva finishes in the top three. The International Olympic Committee, concerned that she could still be banned after a full doping case, said it would instead “organize dignified medal ceremonies” at some future point.
Valieva and her teammates are trying to extend an era of Russian dominance in women's figure skating at the Olympics. It began at the 2014 Sochi Games, when the country's state-sponsored doping scheme first came to light, and Adelina Sotnikova won the gold medal for the host nation. Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva followed with a one-two finish for what was known as the Olympic Athletes from Russia at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games.
Zagitova and Medvedeva also were coached by Tutberidze, the former ice dancer-turned-kingmaker who has been criticized for pushing young skaters to extreme limits in her brazen pursuit of Olympic medals.
The World Anti-Doping Agency announced this week it will investigate Tutberidze along with the rest of the entourage surrounding Valieva in the lead-up to the Olympics. Tutberidze also could be subject to prosecution in the U.S. under a law that criminalizes doping schemes in events involving American athletes and sponsors.
“She’s pretty much a product of the adults around her,” Switzerland's Alexia Paganini said, "so I have a lot of empathy for her because she, regardless of everything, did have to get on the ice and work hard, no matter what happened around her. She did endure a lot. So I feel sorry for her, but rules are rules and they should be followed.”