It all started routinely, with a team event in which the medalists finished in the expected order (ROC-USA-JPN), and Russian Olympic Committee’s Kamila Valieva unsurprisingly became the first woman to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics.
After that, the 2022 Winter Olympics figure skating competition went from the sublime to the absurd to the sublime.
The team event was over only a day when the cancellation of its formal medal ceremony led to a week in which doping (especially Russia’s doping), pitiless training methods and the sad collapse of Valieva, the 15-year-old at the center of the story, turned into a firestorm as depressing as it was devastating.
Within a few hours of a story by Olympic specialist website Inside the Games that a legal issue about doping had prevented the team event medals from being presented, the website reported the case involved Valieva, the heavy favorite in women’s singles.
Valieva’s positive doping result from a December test, the bureaucratic laxity that followed, the decision that allowed her to compete in singles – it all brought recrimination, tears, anger and numbness as Valieva staggered under the weight of it, and the world watched in dismay.
How sadly bizarre was it that Court of Arbitration for Sport rulings on figure skating matters were as significant as nearly anything that happened on the ice?
One CAS panel rejected an International Olympic Committee appeal to prevent Valieva from competing. Another rejected an appeal from the nine U.S. figure skaters who contributed to a second place in the team event to overturn the IOC decision not to award medals until Valieva’s doping case is adjudicated, which may take months.
Will this become an inflection point for figure skating, similar to the pairs judging controversy at the 2002 Winter Games, which led to a revolutionary change in the way the sport is judged and scored?
Will there be a higher age minimum for skaters at the senior level? Limitations on the number of quadruple jumps, which factor into the problem because they are a path to high scores, because young girls with prepubescent bodies have a sizeable advantage in executing them? Serious monitoring of the demands on children to learn the jumps, watch their weight and practice for hours on end? The promised investigations into those issues and whether chemical means – both with banned substances and envelope-pushing “legal” ones – are widely used to abet success?
The temptation is to blame this entire mess on one Russian, Eteri Tutberidze, coach of Valieva and the women’s gold and silver medalists and the silver medalists in pairs. After all, Tutberidze frequently has admitted her Machiavellian side in interviews.
Banning Tutberidze, if further evidence proves such action warranted, would be a simplistic answer to a complex problem affecting mainly women’s singles. So would merely raising the age minimum, which the International Skating Union will consider at its biennial congress in June.
That the sport must change itself again is the biggest takeaway from the 17 days of figure skating in Beijing that ended with Sunday’s gala. Here are some others, including the sublime:
*With his short program in the team event, Nathan Chen began to show that his struggles at the 2018 Olympics would soon be forgotten.
Chen went on in the individual event to underscore his four-year dominance of men’s singles by mastering the most difficult short and free programs anyone has attempted at the Olympics. His one mistake was one of omission rather than commission, and Chen’s 171 grades of execution for the two programs did not include a single negative score.
Beyond that, especially in a short program for the ages, Chen had moments of pure beauty and compelling intricacy of movement. He captured both he wistful nostalgia of his short program music and the upbeat joy of the free skate music.
It was as good as it gets.
*But for his quad axel monomania, Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan might have overcome a big mistake in the short program and joined Gillis Grafstrom of Sweden (two gold, one silver) and Yevgeny Plushenko of Russia (one gold, two silver) as the only men to win three Winter Olympic singles medals. (Grafstrom had also won gold in 1920, when skating was part of the Summer Olympics; the first Winter Games were not until 1924.)
Japan’s Hanyu, the 2014, ‘18 winner, fell hard attempting the quad axel jump in the free skate and then fell on his next jump, a quad salchow. Those mistakes cost him 9.85 grade of execution points, and his component score points had a lower cap because of the two serious errors.
Hanyu finished 9.79 points behind bronze medalist Shoma Uno of Japan.
At a press conference four days after he finished fourth, Hanyu would not rule out trying for a fourth Olympics. He will be 31.
*After its worst results ever four years ago, Team USA improved by every measure – gold medals (one to none), total medals (three to two) and leading/combined placements in every discipline.
Seven of the 16 U.S. skaters had competed in 2018 (one, Alexa Knierim, with a different pairs partner.) Of the 2022 team, it seems unlikely that many will be at the 2026 Winter Games in Italy, with men’s champion Nathan Chen the most noteworthy question mark.
Chen, 23 in early May, has repeatedly said his only long-range plan is to resume his studies at Yale in August after a two-year leave. He will be a junior.
*Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France moved ice dance toward a new realm with their free dance to Gabriel Faure’s “Elegy,” one in which each partner carried the same interpretive weight, not the traditional imbalance of the man presenting the woman, usually with a romantic theme.
“I think you can be mixed without being heteronormative,” Cizeron told Clementine Blondet of the French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “The woman is beautiful, the man is beautiful, and the two together are something special.”
Papadakis and Cizeron certainly were that in winning the gold medal with what they called a “modern tango.” The two other medalist couples stood to applaud the beauty, physical and emotional, of what their rivals had done.
*Ice dance immediately preceded women’s singles but the two might as well have been going on simultaneously, given all the attention to Valieva practicing as the dancers competed.
Pairs was the final event, starting a day after the cataclysmic women’s free skate denouement left a pall over the Capital Indoor Stadium.
The two days of pairs competition were of such brilliant quality they lifted some of the gloom, reminding those who love skating of the reasons for that attraction. The Chinese winners, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, and the Russian couples who won the other medals performed so wonderfully they allowed the entire sport to rise about itself at the end, even if only briefly.
The darkness of the Valieva affair will endure much longer, no matter when and if its resolution as a doping matter provides more clarity.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.