Kamila Valieva fought back tears after a less than perfect skate left her in control of an Olympic figure skating gold she may never be awarded.
The 15-year-old Russian, who was controversially cleared for graduation by the Court of Arbitration for Sport yesterday, is used to being in the spotlight but this was on another level.
As rival after rival asked if she should skate after her performances, she entered the arena under such a glare that it was amazing the ice didn’t melt under her skates.
Valieva’s riveting short program wowed judges this season, setting a world record 90.45 points when she won the European title in Estonia last month.
But perhaps that was understandably more stuttering than these seemingly carefree performances, the maelstrom swirling around them was certainly taking its toll.
She made a huge mistake on her former trademark triple axel that has plagued her in training for the past few days. She didn’t fall, but a big step outside cost her valuable points, her score of 82.16, more than eight points shy of her flawless world record.
However, Valieva’s routines are so difficult that even when they aren’t nailed down, others have trouble keeping up. The skater synchronized Miss Perfect doesn’t have to be to win.
Valieva took gold in a landslide victory by 22 points, but there is some risk ahead of Thursday’s deciding free skate, with teammate Anna Shcherbakova just under two points behind and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto not much further behind.
Shcherbakova refused to answer questions about her training partner and defending underfire coach Eteri Tutberidze, while Sakamoto added: “There’s a lot of talk about doping and I don’t know the truth or details. I focus on the sport and the competition.”
However, if Valieva lands another quad – she was the first woman to do so in a team event at the Olympics – it will still be a competition at her mercy.
But all good drama needs a subplot and this one has many twists and turns ahead of it.
And whatever happens, no medals will be awarded as the International Olympic Committee makes this unprecedented decision after losing a legal bid to prevent Valieva from skating.
Meanwhile, the teen broke her silence and spoke for the first time since news she tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine, an angina drug, stunned the games.
“The last few days have been very difficult for me,” she told Russian broadcaster Channel One. “I’m happy to compete, but emotionally I’m very tired.”
8️⃣2️⃣.1️⃣6️⃣ for the short program by Kamila Valieva.
— Eurosport (@eurosport) February 15, 2022
The bewildered teenager admitted her feelings were weakened by hours of legal testimony as the CAS met in Beijing to decide whether she could compete – but crucially not her guilt or innocence over doping allegations.
British champion Natasha McKay – who was making her Olympic debut – admitted frustration with Valieva’s case and questioned the integrity of the CAS decision.
Asked if she has sympathy for the Russian at the heart of the Games’ greatest story, McKay said: “I have sympathy for anyone who’s going to be on the podium, who’s not going to get their medals, it’s the most important part of the Olympics Play and they won’t get that chance.
“I wish it was a level playing field and it’s not, but they made a decision that they made and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Swedish skater Josefin Taljegard also expressed concern that Valieva’s story could overshadow events at the Games.
“I think fair play is important. Something in me finds it sad. I try to be a good role model,” she said.
“I just want everyone to know that figure skating is a beautiful sport. These negative things decrease from it. Hopefully, if not in this competition, we can get the world to remember how great figure skating is.”
But former Olympian Adam Rippon, who now coaches American skater Mariah Bell, was the strongest in his criticism.
“We are accommodating with Russia,” he said. “I don’t know how the Olympics will recover from this.
“They’re a factory pumping out kids who can compete to a point. It doesn’t feel like the trainers involved in the women’s program are even trainers, but dog trainers; They run a circus. They shouldn’t be here at the Olympics, they’re clowns.”
Watch all Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics live on Discovery+, Eurosport and the Eurosport app