How do you watch with any pleasure an Olympic event in which the International Olympic Committee has all but called one of the competitors a pariah?
Not just any competitor, but Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, the one who has been favored to win the gold medal in women’s singles, which remains possible after she won Tuesday’s short program.
One whose presence in the event was so controversial the IOC declared there would be no medal ceremony for it anytime soon, and perhaps not for months, should Valieva finish in a medal position.
That there would be a similar delay in the presentation of the medals from last week’s team event, in which Valieva helped the Russian Olympic Committee team finish first while making history as the first woman to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics.
Waiting for Valieva to skate, as the 26th of 30 in the short program starting order, could anyone really give the others the attention their skating deserved?
What everyone wanted to see was how Valieva reacted to all of this, whether it would overwhelm her either during or after her short program.
Valieva made one big mistake on her most difficult jump, the triple axel, stepping out of the landing and putting a hand on the ice for stability. She finished to applause. She put her hands over her face and cried, skated to the boards, then smiled.
Before all of this, figure skating at the 2022 Winter Olympics already had a theater of the absurd, given that COVID-19 has forced staging these Games with very small audiences. No other sport has a larger focus on its entertainment side than figure skating.
Then you see the script redone with even more bizarre plot lines, twists that even the absurdist master Samuel Beckett might not have dared write, the latest becoming public only a few hours before the short program.
It starts with having the 15-year-old protagonist, Valieva, test positive for a banned drug in a sample taken Dec. 25. She is from a country with a sulfurous doping reputation and hundreds of doping transgressions over the past dozen years.
(In a comic aside, you see the IOC repeatedly slapping Russia on the wrist with punishments about name and flag and anthem that are more symbolic than real. A Russian Olympian by any other name – OAR, ROC, whatever – is still a Russian.)
Then it takes significantly more time than mandated until the test result reaches the Russian Anti-Doping Agency, which has the initial responsibility to deal with it. It is so much time that the Olympic team skating event ended before RUSADA received the information.
(In another aside, you note much more time will pass, with World Anti-Doping Agency doping case processes and rules as Byzantine as they are, to resolve the question of whether the test result will eventually lead to a sanction of Valieva.)
Then there is the suspension scene. It has Valieva provisionally suspended, as required after a positive test, followed by her successfully appealing with RUSADA to reverse the suspension. The IOC appealed the reversal of the suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, trying to end Valieva’s participation at the 2022 Winter Olympics. And the IOC losing.
(And yet another aside to say that it would take a 3,000-act play to explain fully all the factors involved in this case.)
Then you see an IOC member, Denis Oswald, come on stage Tuesday. Oswald confirms Russian media reports that Valieva’s defense team contended to the CAS panel the positive test for the drug Trimetazidine might have been caused by contamination from exposure to a product her grandfather was taking.
Her attorney reportedly said she might have used the same cup her grandfather did. Or that traces of the substance from another surface his drug touched somehow got into her urine sample.
Next comes an intermission for the audience to mull that over.
Where is the figure skating in any of this? Where are the jumps, the spins, the footwork, the presentation?
Valieva’s skating earned a score of 82.16, the lowest in all but her first of seven competitions this season, eight points lower than the score she had received for a flawless short program in the team event.
Her ROC teammate, reigning world champion Anna Shcherbakova, was a close second with a season-best 80.20, and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto nearly as close in third (79.84). Both were flawless.
The top U.S. finisher, Alysa Liu, was eighth at 69.50. Reigning U.S. champion Mariah Bell was 11th at 65.38, two-time Olympian Karen Chen 13th at 64.11. Both Bell and Chen fell on a jump landing.
Valieva skipped the press conference for the top three, which she was not required to attend.
“These days have been very difficult for me,” Valieva told Russian state broadcaster Channel One a day before the short program. “I’m happy but I’m tired.”
Neither Shcherbakova nor Sakamoto wanted to address the Valieva situation.
Through a translator, Sakamoto said, “Regarding doping, I know there’s a lot of talk about that. I don’t know any of the details (so) I can’t really comment.”
In its ruling allowing Valieva to skate, the CAS panel said, “…preventing the Athlete from competing at the Olympic Games would cause her irreparable harm in these circumstances.”
That begs the question of whether her participation and the distraction from it caused harm, irreparable or not, to the other women’s singles skaters.
“The court made that decision. I can’t really change it,” Liu said. “I don’t know every detail of the case but from the big picture, a doping athlete competing against clean athletes isn’t fair. I’m not sure what exactly happened, but I just know that I’m a clean athlete, and I got to compete at the Olympics.”
The Valieva situation also has deprived skaters in the team event from celebrating at a medal ceremony during the Olympics. It had been scheduled for last Wednesday but was cancelled when Olympic officials learned of Valieva’s positive test.
No matter how the Valieva case finally is adjudicated, participants on the teams that finished second and third, the United States and Japan, will get medals of some color.
“I really was looking forward to being on the podium with my teammates, sharing that moment, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way, so it’s definitely, definitely disappointing,” said Chen, the U.S. singles skater in both the team short program and free skate.
“But what can we do? That’s the decision that was made. It’s out of our control. And whatever it is, we’ve just got to go with it and go with the flow.”
You think you may know how this play ends, but you never are sure because the IOC and CAS and RUSADA and WADA and others in the alphabet soup of involved organizations are directing and rewriting the production as it goes. You watched one act Tuesday, and it was supposed to be a figure skating short program, but that didn’t seem like what you saw.
That was the play within the play. So is the free skate that takes place Thursday.
“Nothing to be done,” Estragon tells Vladimir at the start of Beckett’s best-known play, “Waiting for Godot.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.