While the Tokyo Olympics were known as one where athletes spoke out about mental health and social issues, China’s infamous internet bots seemingly scrubbed away that connection to fans.
The visuals were not great, either. The empty stands were a little sad if understandable for the indoor events. Then the brutally cold weather delayed some events and made others seem even more dangerous than usual. It did not help that Russia was seemingly waiting for the Games to end to invade Ukraine.
Drama and more drama in figure skating
Nathan Chen won his Gold medal, finding redemption. But, it was the soap opera surrounding the ROC women figure skating team that seemed to suck the air out of the Winter Olympics’ premiere event. Below is the cast involved:
Kamila Valieva, the exploited child
Thanks to her gravity-defying quad jumps, the 15-year-old was the World Champion and Olympic favorite. Then came news after the team event that she tested positive on Christmas Day for heart medicine called trimetazidine, which can help with the endurance. After days of deliberation, which should certainly have occurred before the Games, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that it would “irreparably harm” Valieva if she were precluded from skating in the individual Olympic event. This brought fairness questions: NBC announcers and former skaters Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski both said she shouldn’t compete; and had her case been handled in January as it should have been, she likely would have been serving a sanction and would have missed the Olympic Games. Disappointed with the CAS decision to allow her to skate, the IOC said there wouldn’t be a ceremony if she got a medal.
Then it turned cruel. Valieva’s free skate program was a train wreck with multiple falls, obviously due to the stress of the controversy. Television cameras caught her coach Eteri Tutberidze greeting the clearly distraught Valieva post-performance with reprimands, asking why she gave up. At that moment, it was clear to the television audience that the top skater in the world wasn’t worth the coach’s pity nor her care. The incident was called “chilling” by IOC president Thomas Bach.
Alexandra Trusova, and the tantrum seen around the world
This 17-year-old skater grabbed a Silver medal after skating a great but less-than-perfect program. After the results were announced, she was seen and heard shouting that she hated figure skating, would never skate again, and that everyone had a gold medal but her. At one point, she stood in a corner facing the wall, and practically had to be coaxed onto the ice for the medal ceremony.
Anna Shcherbakova, the overshadowed gold medalist
This 17-year-old won the gold medal with a flawless skate, yet she was not greeted by a coach or team member when she came off the ice from the skate of her life. The camera shows her standing alone with no reaction. What should have been a moment of triumph was one of isolation and loneliness as the world watched. Still calling the win somewhat empty the following day, Shcherbakova is the victim of collateral damage amidst a chaotic scene that had spun out of control after a week of simmering tensions.
The American and Japanese teams, and the withholding of a medal ceremony
At the end of the figure skating event, the IOC stood firm on its refusal to conduct a medal ceremony in the team event, robbing the United States and Japan teams of the public celebration that they had earned and deserved. The United States team’s late attempt to force a medal ceremony was rejected by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, leaving the American team (and the Japan team) with empty medal boxes and no ceremony.
The ROC women still won the top two medals in the individual event, and Japan’s thrilled Kaori Sakamoto joined them, but there was little joy in ROC skaters’ accomplishments, either for them or for fans. People watch the Olympics to see stories of heroic accomplishment from athletes supported by their families, training far from home, and making countless sacrifices that often go without major paydays seen by high-profile professional sports.
At the end, Beijing will be remembered as yet another Olympic Games with a major Russian scandal, with Valieva’s coaches and team officials now under investigation.