Russian figure skating star Kamila Valieva broke into tears after she posted an impressive performance in the women’s short skating program in her first appearance since the controversial doping ruling allowed her to continue competing at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
There was a slight stumble on her opening jump, a triple Axel, but she held it together well until the end to post the top score of the women’s short program: 82.16. The result means she qualifies for Thursday’s free skate medal event.
The crowd were audibly getting behind Valieva, perhaps more so than any other skater, according to CNN staff in the arena.
As soon as she finished, she broke into tears on the ice as the emotions of the past few days appeared to catch up with her.
A lot on her shoulders
When Valieva first skated onto the Olympic ice at Beijing’s Capital Indoor Stadium on Tuesday, she was carrying more than the usual pressure of a top-ranked athlete hoping to make the best of less than three minutes on the ice.
The 15-year-old is at the center of a doping scandal that has inflamed mistrust of the Russian athletic establishment, pressed sports organizations and athletes around the world to call for reform, and seen the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postpone medal ceremonies for any event that could place Valieva on the podium.
Officials are still investigating whether Valieva or her entourage broke anti-doping rules, after a test she took in December was found to be positive for a banned substance.
On Tuesday, an IOC official said Valieva is blaming the doping violation – in which she tested positive for a heart medication that experts say can improve stamina – on contamination from her grandfather’s medication. Her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, told Russian state news agency Tass they are “absolutely sure” she is innocent.
Despite the drug controversy, a top sports court on Monday cleared Valieva to participate in the women’s singles competition, one of the most high-profile events of the Winter Olympics and one the young skater sees as a chance for solo gold.
Valieva will compete amid “extraordinary pressure,” according to Peter Terry, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern Queensland, who has worked with Olympic athletes at nine previous Olympic Games.
“She’d have been trained in relaxation techniques, in mindfulness training – that’s fairly standard for elite athletes, and she would be trying to normalize things as much as possible,” Terry said.
How Valieva holds up against that pressure will determine whether she can continue to compete in the free skate portion of the event, scheduled for Thursday. For those who skate in that second, longer program, the combined scores determine who wins.
Even before the competition, the IOC changed the rules in case Valieva is ultimately disqualified – 25 skaters will go through to the longer program on Thursday, one more than the usual 24.
Valieva is not the only member of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) under pressure.
Her entourage is also being investigated under suspicion that the teenager, if guilty of taking a banned substance, was not acting alone.
As a minor, Valieva has “protected” status and the specific provisions for evidence in such cases was one reason the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) upheld a decision by Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency to lift a suspension on Valieva, allowing her to skate.
A number of sports officials and athletes around the world have condemned the CAS decision.
The head of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee said the group was “disappointed” by the message it sends to the global sporting community. But many of the same voices have defended Valieva as a victim of systematic failure.
“It is clearly a wish and a decision of the IOC but also WADA to examine all aspects of this case, including the situation of the entourage because of course you can imagine a girl of 15 would not do something wrong alone – so yes, the entourage will be investigated,” Denis Oswald, the Chair of the IOC Disciplinary Commission told reporters Tuesday.
That entourage includes one of Russia’s preeminent skating coaches, Tutberidze – a former ice skater with a reputation for raising champions, including medalists at the past two Winter Olympic Games, but who has also faced questions about her extreme coaching tactics.
Terry, the psychology professor, said, while he could not speculate about whether Valieva was innocent or guilty, it was “hard to imagine any 15-year-old taking an illicit substance of their own volition.”
“The (adults around her) have a solemn responsibility to put her wellbeing before results because she’s a child in their care. Now, whether they do or not is uncertain,” he said.
But others see the situation as stretching further than one athlete and coach, in light of Russia’s recent history of systemic, state-sponsored doping.
Past infringements have seen the country’s athletes barred from international competitions. Since 2019, they’ve only been able to participate as neutrals in the Olympics due to a WADA ban set to expire at the end of this year.
On Tuesday, WADA’s founding president Dick Pound called for a “time out” for Russia’s participation in the Olympics.
“This is going on too long, and it’s too obvious. Maybe, it’s time for a time out for Russia in the Olympics,” said Pound, who is a senior IOC member and former Canadian athlete.
But the IOC’s Oswald said this case may be different.
“My impression from what I’ve seen and heard is that there is no connection with the institutionalized doping we had in Sochi, it seems to be a totally different case,” he said Tuesday. “But again, it is difficult to have an opinion without all the details.”
CNN’s Hannah Ritchie and Selina Wang contributed reporting.