On Friday, the day after her final routine, figure skater Kamila Valieva had already left the Olympics and arrived back in Moscow—but Russian media has still not finished discussing the tragedy that it witnessed on Thursday in Beijing. Although Russians won gold and silver medals in the Olympic women’s figure skating competition, there has been no feeling of celebration.
Like many other Russians, I watched the competition live and felt immense pain every time Valieva, who had seemed untouchable and was expected to be the champion, stumbled and fell. After the routine, it was even more heartbreaking to hear the judges announce that Valieva would drop out of first place straight down to fourth. Commentators on Russia 1 Channel, which is broadcasting the Games nationwide, were crying and blaming the World Anti-Doping Agency and International Olympic Committee for putting a 15-year-old under colossal pressure because of the doping scandal. “They broke her. That’s what they wanted, and they achieved it,” said Irina Slutskaya, a Russian former figure skater, and two-time Olympic medalist. Her colleague, well-known figure skating TV commentator Andrei Zhurankov added that “sports officials destroyed the most talented figure skater in the world.”
All attention was on Valieva—the commentators focused on how much she is a true hero despite all her mistakes even when her compatriots, gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova and silver medalist Alexandra Trusova, were receiving their awards at the flower ceremony. Seventeen-year-old Shcherbakova, who delivered a mistake-free performance that featured two quadruple jumps (before Valieva, Trusova, and Shcherbakova, no women had ever landed quads at the Olympics), was smiling and jumping at the podium. However, the gold medalist admitted during the press conference later that once Valieva failed, and she learned that she would thus become the champion, she “was not ready to celebrate.”
“I was not upset or embarrassed to celebrate. I just lost all the emotions,” Shcherbakova said.
On the contrary, the other Russian medalist, 17-year-old Trusova, was full of emotions. The athlete, who is called the “Russian rocket” by fans and media, was outraged that after making history as the first woman to land five quadruple jumps in a routine at the Olympics, she got only second place, not first. “Everyone has a gold medal, everyone, but not me. I hate skating. I hate this sport. I will never skate again. Never!” Trusova screamed, pushing away her coach Eteri Tutberidze, who tried to comfort her. Video of Trusova’s “silver tantrum” was widely shared on media. It reminded me of the scene from I, Tonya in which the controversial U.S. figure skater Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) looks back at the 1994 Winter Olympics, where she finished eighth, and her fellow U.S. skating rival Nancy Kerrigan won a silver medal. “When they put that medal around her neck, she looked like she stepped in poo,” the fictional Harding remembers. Russian press quoted former American figure skater Adam Rippon, who shamed Trusova’s outburst. However, many Russians on social media did not agree with him; most are calling the emotions of the Russian Rocket understandable. “I feel sorry for her. Valieva has gold in the team event, Shcherbakova in the individual tournament. Trusova rotated five quads and has nothing. I would have been devastated too,” wrote one of the users on Twitter. “She invested herself completely, gave judges everything she had to offer, but still lost. It is like experiencing five one-sided loves at the age of 17 years,” wrote the sports journalist Anastasia Panina in her column for website Match TV.
Many Russians have pointed out on Twitter that Trusova is a child after all, who should not be expected to control her emotions as well as adults, and shame the cameramen for hunting her in her moment of weakness. Trusova also mentioned excessive media attention when asked about her outburst on the Match TV channel on Thursday. “It’s not my fault the cameras are following me. I asked to let me go,” explained Trusova, adding that she was satisfied with her performance, but not with the medal. Some blame Eteri Tutberidze for Trusova’s mental breakdown. “Trusova’s tantrum is an address to Tutberidze,” Panina wrote, further implying that the coach should treat Trusova, Shcherbakova, and Valieva better. Championat.com also accused Tutberidze of failing to build a healthy relationship with her students: “You can’t make everybody a champion, but you can create a non-toxic environment for healthy competition, and coaches [of the Olympics trio] haven’t achieved this goal.” Tutberidze is known in Russia for putting her students under intense physical and psychological pressure. Some call her abusive; all call her successful. The athletes are also known for sticking to her. In 2020, Trusova left Tutberidze for another coach, four-time Olympic medalist Evgeni Plushenko; however, last year, she returned to Eteri, explaining that she was more used to training with her. After the outburst, Trusova said that she didn’t change her mind about Tutberidze.
But Russian figure skating fans started to question Tutberidze’s attitude in the context of the current Olympics before the dramatic finale on Thursday. They accused her of not providing Kamila Valieva with enough support amid the doping scandal’s pressure. “Throwing a minor to the journalists is nasty. You should have taken the hit instead of hiding behind backs,” one Twitter user addressed to the team’s coaches on Feb. 11. The post was followed by the hashtag #позорТутберидзе—“shame on you, Tutberidze,” which has been trending on Twitter since then. Fans shared under the hashtag past stories of alleged Tutberidze abuse.
Tutberidze also came under fire after cameras caught her criticizing Valieva after the free skate program. When the crying teenager got off the ice, the coach lectured her: “Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me—why?” Another video shows a crying Valieva being comforted not by Eteri, but by a journalist from state-owned TV station Channel One, Olga Chernosvitova, who was reassuring her: “This is not your defeat. The whole world was against you.” I thought the chaos surrounding Tutberidze’s team after the long program went well-reflected in another Russian’s comment on Twitter: “Kamila is crying on a shoulder of the random woman, Alexandra is lashing like an animal at a bay, Anna got left alone and doesn’t know what to do. Glorious! Congratulations on medals!”
IOC president Thomas Bach said Friday that he was “very disturbed” by the “tremendous coldness” of Tutberidze. Several in Russian state media, commentators, and sports officials, though, rejected concerns about Tutberidze’s methods and Bach’s statement, and instead praised her work. Two-time Olympic medalist in ice dance Alexander Zhulin posted on his Instagram an open letter to the head of IOC, defending Tutberidze and asking Bach “not to teach an outstanding coach manners.” Eteri thanked Zhulin under the post, adding that “she has been confused” by Bach’s evaluation of her work. The Kremlin also supported the coach. “The harshness of a coach in high-level sport is key for their athletes to achieve victories,” stated Dmitry Peskov, a spokesperson for president Vladimir Putin.
Now the famous coach is under investigation. Last week Russia’s anti-doping agency RUSADA started investigating Valieva’s entourage. Tutberidze reacted by saying that the athlete “is innocent and clean.” State-owned Russian media declare that the U.S. and other Western countries are behind the doping scandal. The director of national channel TNT—no relation to the American cable network—Tina Kandelaki wrote an opinion piece in which she compared Valieva to a loyal “Russian soldier, fighting for her country,” who has become a target of the U.S.
But those who don’t believe in conspiracy theories and still remember the country’s past doping scandals, the reason why Russia can’t perform under its national flag at the Olympics, are trying to find a logical explanation for why Valieva might have taken trimetazidine. The most popular version, supported in Russian media by doctors and sports lawyers, is that the athlete could have consumed the prohibited substance by accident. Kommersant quotes lawyer Valeriy Fedoreev, who assumes that trimetazidine could have gotten into Valieva’s system with another medicine, like a vitamin that was contaminated at the production site, unpremeditatedly. WADA and other anti-doping experts say the drug can boost endurance and stamina, and might help athletes with recovery. But opinions on its effects are not unanimous. Russian experts emphasize that while this drug can potentially help a sportsman to perform for a longer time, it is useless in figure skating, since it doesn’t allow the skaters to improve their jumps. Moreover, some doctors in Russia note that trimetazidine is rarely even prescribed to heart patients, since its efficacy is questionable.
However, many Russian social media users and doctors are not convinced by Valieva’s argument that contamination might have happened after she drank from the glass of her grandfather, who takes trimetazidine. Cardiologists explained that this medicine dissolves only in the bowels. “Why is Valieva lying? Does she chew the food after her grandfather? I am sure she didn’t take doping on her own, she doesn’t need it. But her coaches and entourage are in charge. She was trying to shield them,” says one of the posts on Facebook. Other Russian commentators also imply that the grandfather excuse was made up by athlete’s coaching team. “Two months after the test, Valieva remembered that her grandfather shared doping with her … It is disgusting, that they [Valieva’s team] are not only feeding [the athletes] garbage but teach them how to lie since they are babies,” wrote another Facebook user.
While the Olympics figure skating drama is over, the doping scandal is yet to fully unfold. However, a silver lining might be that it appears that the traumas exposed in Beijing have made many in Russia start a discussion over mental health of young athletes. This is a big step, given that last year Russian media widely criticized American gymnast Simone Biles after she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics to focus on her mental health. As much as Russians love champions, we can also hope that this saga will mean that the girls might soon start to be treated with more compassion and care, at last.