A Russian woman was standing atop the figure skating podium at the Beijing Games on Thursday night.
It just wasn’t the one anyone expected.
Even the fact that there was a podium was a surprise.
Anna Shcherbakova, the overlooked world champion, delivered a clean performance in her free skate at historic Capital Indoor Stadium to win a stunning gold medal, while teammate Kamila Valieva — at the center of the latest Russian doping controversy — tumbled out of the medals altogether with a mistake-filled end to her Olympic dream.
“I still haven’t realized that my Olympic Games have ended. I just know that I skated clean,” said Shcherbakova, who was second behind Valieva after the short program. “I am so happy that I still haven’t realized the result.”
Shcherbakova landed both of her quads to finish with 255.95 points, edging out another teammate, Alexandra Trusova, who landed five somewhat shaky quads of her own. Trusova finished four points back in second place but wasn’t pleased with the judges, especially given the difficulty of her program.
“I am not happy with the result,” said Trusova, who, like Valieva, was sobbing afterward. “There is no happiness.”
Kaori Sakamoto of Japan was happy. She took bronze to break up an expected Russian sweep of the Olympic podium.
“I don’t have the big jumps as others would have, which is a big handicap,” said Sakamoto, who doesn’t have a four-rotation quad in her arsenal but hit the cleanest triple axel of the Olympics. “That means I had to have perfect elements.”
She did Thursday night, too. Just like Shcherbakova.
With the fewest quads among controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze’s “Quad Squad,” the 17-year-old Russian instead relied on back-to-back clean programs with peerless artistry and unmatched skill. It culminated in her free skate Thursday night, when Shcherbakova landed her opening quad flip-triple toe loop combination and never looked back.
She followed Adelina Sotnikova and Alina Zagitova in giving her nation three straight women’s figure skating gold medals.
“The importance of this is so huge that I cannot fully understand it yet. At the moment I have only felt the happiness from the fact that I was able to do everything I am capable of in my program,” Shcherbakova said. “I still haven’t realized that the competition has finished and this is the result. I haven’t understood what has happened.”
Meanwhile, Valieva was inconsolable in the kiss-and-cry area. The 15-year-old phenom was heavily favored to win gold but is headed home with nothing from the women’s program and a looming investigation into her positive drug test.
Valieva was shaky on an opening quad salchow, then stepped out on a triple axel and fell altogether on a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Valieva fell again on her other quad toe loop, keeping her from completing that combination, and spun out on another jump late in the program — though by that point, her fate was sealed.
She did not speak to reporters after a performance that made Shcherbakova’s look even better.
“I watched Kamila but probably did not understand what I was experiencing,” Shcherbakova said. “Of course, I was very nervous for her during the skate because from the very first jump it was clear that the skate is going very hard and I understand perfectly what an athlete feels at those moments.”
Moments after Valieva departed the arena, workers began setting up for a flower ceremony that the International Olympic Committee said wouldn’t take place if she was in the top three.
Medals will be handed out Friday in a ceremony that also would not have occurred in Beijing had Valieva reached the podium.
“I’m happy that there will be a ceremony, that we are going to get our medals,” said Trusova, who refused to answer any questions about Valieva. “Of course, it will be extremely pleasant for me to receive my medal.”
Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication at the Russian championships in December, but the result was not revealed until last week, shortly after she helped to win a team gold medal that is now also in doubt.
She was cleared to compete earlier this week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that she had protected status as a minor and would suffer “irreparable harm” if she was not allowed to perform. The court did not rule on the full scope of the case, though, leaving that to anti-doping investigators in the future.
The court’s decision cast a polarizing shadow over one of the marquee events of the Winter Games.
“Do I feel sorry for her? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say so,” Sakamoto said after her short program. “Of course, there were moments where I thought: ‘What’s going to happen? What’s happening?’”
Valieva has claimed the drug triggering her positive, trimetazidine, entered her system by accident. But the World Anti-Doping Agency filed a brief stating that two other substances she acknowledged taking, L-carnitine and Hypoxen — though both legal — undercut the argument that a banned substance could have been ingested in error.
“You use all of that to increase performance,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said.
In the meantime, IOC President Thomas Bach tried to appease angry American skaters by offering Olympic torches to those who helped win their team silver medals, the Associated Press learned late Wednesday. The torches are meant to serve as holdover gifts while the world awaits the resolution of Valieva’s doping case.
“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t able to get our medals,” said Karen Chen, who competed in the team event for the U.S. and finished 16th in the women’s program Thursday night. “I have yet to see the torch, but once that is like given to us, I think it will be such a special moment that we will cherish forever.”
As the doping case unfolded around her, Valieva tried to go about her business as usual, taking part in every practice on her schedule. And though she looked calm and cool during a run-through for her short program, the first cracks began to appear when she skated off the ice and broke down in tears — even though she was leading the event.
The complete collapse came with the eyes of the world watching Thursday night.