And just like that, another Olympics comes to an end. Beijing was not just any ordinary Olympics though. Until the moment it began there were many who doubted it would go ahead. The pandemic still managed to encroach into the skating bubble with a number of skaters sidelined by the strict protocols in place. A doping scandal shone a light on an aspect of the sport that needed to be addressed. There were moments of joy, sadness, excitement and frustration. And now it will be four years ago until we do it all again.
On the day of the Opening Ceremony, the team event began. Only ever contested in this exact format at the Olympics, the podiums in Sochi and PyeongChang comprised Canada, Russia and the United States of America. This time round the Russian Olympic Committee and the U.S. battled for the top prize with both teams winning three segments a piece. The ROC claimed gold due to finishing no worse than third in any part of the competition with the U.S. taking second for the first time. PyeongChang gold medallists Canada barely squeezed into the top five this time and Japan, thanks to a strong showing across the board, nabbed the bronze medal.
Or so everyone thought. The medal ceremony for the team event was delayed for legal reasons which was just the start of an unprecedented situation at an Olympic Games. But more of that later.
The men’s event was billed as a head to head between two-time defending Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu (JPN) and reigning three-time World champion Nathan Chen (USA). Hanyu declared that he wanted to land a quadruple Axel. Chen had the trauma of his poor performance in the PyeongChang Olympic short programme to overcome. In Beijing, it was Hanyu who had a nightmare in the short when he singled a quadruple Salchow and could only place eighth while Chen set a new world record score of 113.97 points. Hanyu did attempt a quadruple Axel in the free skating which was deemed underrotated by the technical panel, but he did manage to move up to fourth overall. Chen held his nerve in the free to land five quads and cruise to the Olympic title ahead of Yuma Kagiyama (JPN) and Shoma Uno (JPN).
Like Chen, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron (FRA) had unfinished business at the Olympics. A costume malfunction in the short dance had cost them gold in Korea four years ago. Even though the four-time World champions had passed on competing at the European Championships last month, they looked sharper than ever in the rhythm dance breaking their own world record with a score of 90.83 points. They comfortably won the free dance as well to finally add the Olympic title to their collection. 2021 World champions Victoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov (ROC) lost both segments in the team event and just about fended off Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue (USA) in the race for the silver medal.
Following the conclusion of the team event and the postponement of the medal ceremony, speculation went into overdrive about the reason why. Attention focused on the ROC team and it soon became clear that the issue was doping of a protected person. The only minor who competed for the ROC in the team event was Kamila Valieva, the outstanding favourite in the women’s event. Valieva was tested on Christmas Day 2021 at the Russian Championships and her sample sent to a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited laboratory in Stockholm, Sweden. The sample showed a positive result for trimetazidine, a medication used to treat heart conditions. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) received notification of the result on 8 February and cleared Valieva of any wrongdoing on 9 February. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), WADA and the International Skating Union (ISU) appealed RUSADA’s decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). On 14 February, CAS ruled that Valieva would be allowed compete in the individual women’s event as not doing so would cause her “irreparable harm” citing her age and the delay in transmitting her test results. The IOC requested that the ISU allow an extra athlete qualify for the free if Valieva advanced from the short and that if the Russian finished in the top three no flower or medal ceremonies would be held pending the outcome of the investigation.
Even though she stepped out of a triple Axel, Valieva stood atop the standings after the short with World champion Anna Shcherbakova and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto not far behind the Russian. In the free, Valieva crumbled and fell twice dropping out of the medals. Shcherbakova performed a perfect programme which included two quadruple flips to emerge victorious. World bronze medallist Alexandra Trusova attempted five quadruple jumps which propelled her from fourth after the short to win the free and gave her the silver medal. Sakamoto skated a clean although technically less challenging routine to hold onto bronze and become only the fourth Japanese woman to win a medal at the Olympics. However, more than the dazzling technical display what those watching the Beijing women’s event will remember are the scenes of Valieva and Trusova emotionally distraught rink side after the final results were announced, while Shcherbakova sat backstage looking nonplussed by the whole experience. The whole episode called into question whether minors are mature enough to compete in a senior competition, particularly if they are exempted from having the same responsibilities and facing the same consequences as the older athletes they are competing against.
While the pairs event would normally be held towards the beginning of the Olympic schedule, the host country decided to save its best chance for a medal until the end. Wenjing Sui and Cong Han (CHN) had narrowly lost the gold medal in PyeongChang four years ago and would not have an easy ride in Beijing against three strong Russian pairs. Sui and Han had set a world record score in the team event short and they improved on that again in the individual event scoring 84.41 points. Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov (ROC) who finished out of the medals in PyeongChang also broke the old world record and were just 0.16 points behind the Chinese. 2021 World champions Anastasia Mishina and Aleksandr Galliamov (ROC) were in striking distance of the top two teams back in third place on 82.76 points.
The free lived up to its billing with the most outstanding display of pairs skating ever witnessed at an Olympics. Sui and Han had very little room for error when they skated last and they produced a quadruple twist that gave them a much needed points cushion over the Russian pairs. Despite a botched landing on a side by side triple Salchow by Sui, the Chinese eked out the win by a mere 0.63 points. Both Tarasova and Morozov and Mishina and Galliamov skated routines that would have been worthy Olympic gold medal performances at any other Games and in the end just over two points separated the medallists.
These Olympics ended on a high for the sport and almost made us forget about the controversy that consumed figure skating for much of the Games. However, there is much to be done before we do this all again at Milano-Cortina in four years time to ensure there is a level playing field for all the athletes in this sport.