Nobody Won Women’s Figure Skating
3:39 PM EST on February 17, 2022
All hell broke loose shortly after Kamila Valieva received her free skate score. A lot of this had to do with the score itself, which was a shocking season-low 141.93, the lowest free skate score and event total she’s received since 2019. Some of it had to do with the fact that the score left the gold medal favorite in fourth place at the Olympics. But under all that surprise there was something older, and sadder. It was the culmination of a week in which none of Russia's star skaters seemed to be having a good time.
Valieva, unsurprisingly, seemed despondent. The 15-year-old skater put her hands over her ears, hung her head, and cried. She was the surest lock for Olympic gold as anyone has been; no one had beaten her this season and she has set world records in short program, free skate, and event total. But after a week of controversy surrounding the news of her positive test for a banned drug, she had just skated her absolute worst with the Olympic medal on the line. The most startling thing about her low score was how much she deserved it.
Anna Shcherbakova, also from Russia and the same training group as Valieva, sat in the partitioned-off green room on a gray couch, clutching a stuffed teddy bear. Her shoulders slumped forward and she looked around for direction, for any of her coaches or fellow medalists. They weren’t coming. She'd just found out she'd won the gold medal, but in her winning moment, she sat alone.
Valieva walked out of the kiss and cry area and hugged another Russian team member, who tried to comfort her but was drowned out by the exasperated cries of silver medalist Sasha Trusova, also from the same Russian training group, who was standing behind her.
Trusova refused to enter the area where her teammate Shcherbakova sat, looking pitifully into the camera. Trusova didn’t acknowledge Valieva’s anguish taking place directly in front of her, either. She’d just become the first woman to land five quads in one program, an unbelievable feat—Nathan Chen landed five quads to win gold on the men's side—that earned her a personal-best free skate score, but it still wasn’t enough for the gold. She paced and yelled about the result while one of her coaches tried and failed to calm her down.
NBC’s Johnny Weir translated Trusova’s Russian in real-time on NBC’s broadcast. "I won't see this," he relayed, and later, "I'm not going, I won’t go!"
Twitter users translated some more of Trusova’s rant.
Several Olympic volunteers tried to give Trusova instructions for the medal ceremony, which could now take place because her tainted teammate Valieva had not medaled.
"It's not possible!" Weir translated Trusova shouting to herself, looking past the volunteers. "I don’t understand English!"
Trusova’s black eyeliner ran down her cheeks and her bright red lipstick smudged her chin. She appeared to shake off a hug from coach Eteri Tutberidze.
Still waiting alone in the green room, Shcherbakova looked around helplessly, and eventually resorted to discussing the logistics of the medal ceremony with another volunteer.
Bronze medalist Kaori Sakamoto from Japan cried with a coach near the rink, surprised that she’d be on the podium. Hers were the only tears of joy.
This Olympic women’s figure skating competition was never going to be normal. Women would be attempting quads for the first time at the Olympics, blasting the technical level of women’s skating into an exciting and dangerous new era. Tutberidze and her trio of skaters seemed set to sweep the podium and continue to separate themselves from the rest of the world.
But then came Valieva’s positive test for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication, and suddenly there was a new explanation for her dominance. Finally, too, there was a concrete reason to question Tutberidze, who is now under investigation by Olympic and anti-doping officials. She and her skaters have been honest about her harsh (if not sadistic) coaching style and emphasis on monitoring their weight, but this was the first time one of her skaters had a positive drug test. When it happened, it happened on skating's biggest stage.
The court of arbitration for sports made the decision to allow Valieva to compete in these Olympics, citing the "irreparable harm" it would cause to her if she wasn’t able to compete. Valieva had already shown signs of struggling with the stress during the week in which her competition status was unknown, with reports of several bad practices with uncharacteristic falls; after one of them, she cried at the boards with Tutberidze. In her short program on Tuesday, Valieva wasn’t her usual self. She faltered on her triple axel and posted her lowest score of the season.
In her free skate, she had the same problem with her triple axel, the second jump in her program, and her skating quickly unraveled from there. She fell twice, a horrific performance for a skater who has been otherwise otherworldly all season. She put her face in her hands and cried after the last note of "Bolero" sounded. It was hard to watch her meltdown, but as she stepped off the ice, Weir listened in on Tutberidze’s immediate comments to her visibly upset skater. He said that she was giving Valieva notes on her skate, which sounds like business as usual.
A closer translation tells the story somewhat differently. "Why did you let it go?" The New York Times reported Tutberidze asked in Russian. "Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why? You let it go after that axel. Why?"
Valieva didn't answer.
The "irreparable harm" that the CAS wanted to avoid turned out to be inevitable for Valieva. Her collapse made any viewer wonder whether the alternative, to not allow her to compete in these Olympics, might have been better for her mental health.
The NBC camera panned back and forth between Trusova’s tantrum and Shcherbakova’s loneliness in her winning moment, making for one of the most riveting and disconcerting sports TV moments I have ever seen. Shcherbakova couldn’t or maybe wouldn’t celebrate her own achievement, because it came through the collapse of a teammate who had been expected to win this same gold. Trusova couldn’t feel happy for Shcherbakova, who had only done two quads, but still beat her by four points because Shcherbakova's advantage in skating skills and artistry that put her ahead in the short program. Valieva, at the end of what was supposed to be her coronation, simply had nothing to feel happy about.
No one was having a good time, including the viewers. It was hard to look away from the disturbing scene, if only because the chaos of it was so completely out of keeping with the normal beats of this sort of moment. What the hell were we even watching? Trusova begrudgingly participated in the medal ceremony, throwing her warmup jacket aside dramatically as she took the ice to skate out to the podium. Her lipstick was still smudged as she removed her black mask and took her place on the second tier. Shcherbakova finally smiled when she was announced as the gold medalist. She jumped up and down on the top spot and waved to the crowd.
In the mixed zone after the competition, Trusova reportedly said in Russian, "I hate everyone, I hate this sport."
It’s important to note that Trusova left Tutberidze’s training group for a year to train with rival coach Evgeni Plushenko. When she made her switch in May of 2020, Russian media reported that Tutberidze hadn’t spent as much time training Trusova as she had her other competitors in the group.
Trusova returned to Tutberidze a year later, saying that she was more used to training and performing with Tutberidze. Other high-profile Russian skaters such as Alena Kostornaia and Evgenia Medvedeva have also left Tutberidze before ultimately deciding to return. However harsh and abusive and rules-breaking her methods are, she gets results. The Wall Street Journal reported that 11 different Russian women have won around 80 percent of the medals across the major international competitions over the last three years. At four of those, they were the only skaters on the podium.
But there is no such thing as collective success in an individual sport. Trusova beat Shcherbakova at Russian Nationals in December, and Shcherbakova beat Trusova at the European Championships in January. They both lost to Valieva in both competitions. Tutberidze’s skaters are constantly pitted against each other, and Trusova’s outburst is evidence of the mental and emotional consequences of a training environment that mirrors gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi’s infamous "scorpions in a bottle" methods.
"You can’t love a dog too much," Tutberidze said in a long interview with Russia’s Channel One this past December. (The translation is by extraFS.) "I mean, you can show as much tenderness as you want and you won't spoil a dog. With an athlete one has to be much more careful. Strict? Maybe. I prefer to tell my athletes the truth. Because flattery they will hear from others. But the truth, how things really are, they will only hear from me."
Valieva led Russia to the team gold, which they or may not actually receive, and Shcherbakova won the women’s gold. Trusova was the odd scorpion out and clearly felt abandoned by her coaches. She doesn't have a gold medal from Russian Nationals, senior Worlds, or Europeans. (Shcherbakova has all three, Valieva hasn't yet competed at a senior Worlds.) When asked if she would be skating at Worlds in March, Trusova was noncommittal, "you'll see."
In the press conference afterwards, neither Trusova or Shcherbakova would talk about Valieva. Trusova said she was satisfied with her performance because she did everything she could. Her voice broke at the end of that answer and a reporter asked her why she was crying.
"Just because I wanted to,” she said. "I've been here for three weeks already, alone, without my mom, my dogs. That's why I'm crying."
Shcherbakova also spoke to her internal conflict. "I was feeling a lot of pleasure because I happened to be in the right time and the right place and did the right things—that’s the important thing." she told reporters. "On the other hand, I feel this emptiness inside."
Instead of celebrating an Olympic sweep, the three Russian women battling for gold are now each assessing the damage. One is broken, one is numb, one is extremely pissed off. The sport feels somehow different and worse for all of it.