BEIJING The Russians always have another can of girl figure skaters to crack open.
They’re the one-and-done teens.
In Sochi, it was 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova who came out of nowhere — no previous Olympic experience, no world podium of any height — to capture gold. Defending champion Yuna Kim, overtaken in the free program, is probably still in a fury about it, along with all of South Korea, amidst allegations of gerrymandered scoring.
Only seen at one competition after that, Sotnikova, plagued by injuries, abruptly retired.
At those same 2014 Games, where Mother Russia basked in the glow of 33 medals (five gold) — doping reckoning would only come much later — the hosts also copped figure skating gold in the team event, led by the transcendent performance of 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya. Her bright light shone for about a week, until a fifth-place short program placement knocked the kid out of medal range, which is where Sotnikova took over.
Keep the line moving, plenty of pubescents crowding in the wings.
Before Pyeongchang rolled ’round, Lipnitskaya was gone — retired at 19, suffering from anorexia, as well as painful leg and hip injuries, treated for mental health issues.
For those Games, Russia threw up 15-year-old Alina Zagitova and 18-year-old Evgenia Medvedeva — gold and silver respectively. Zagitova, who had been a world junior champion and was renowned for her double-triples, is now ranked No. 36 among singles skaters. Hasn’t competed since 2020 and her camp claims she’s on an extended “break.’’ She wasn’t named to the 2021-22 Russian national team. Neither was Medvedeva, two-time world champion about 15 minutes ago, set the world record score 13 times; next great thing until she wasn’t, announced her retirement because of chronic back injury in December.
No matter. Disposable. Like a used tissue.
Lipnitskaya, Zagitova and Medvedeva all emerged from the stable of formidable — if quite enigmatic — coach Eteri Tutberidze, who’s viewed dimly within the international skating orbit for her hard-nut approach to young athletes, cranking out teenagers of astonishing jumping ability who debut like Roman candles, then flare out and break down.
Tutberidze has brought all three Russian teen girls to Beijing for the singles competition: 17-year-olds Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova, and 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the quad-turning sensation who on Monday was handed a doping reprieve following an expedited six-hour hearing before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
It was widely predicted that the Russian trio would sweep the medals in the women’s competition which begins Tuesday. Valieva is still heavily favoured to take gold, assuming she keeps her wits about her and doesn’t come unhinged after what has been a tumultuous week ’round these parts.
There’s no doubt Valieva had a banned substance inside her person — the sample she submitted in an out-of-competition test in St. Petersburg, way back on Christmas Day. Because Russia doesn’t have an accredited lab — the country is notorious, after all, for its massive state-sponsored doping program, exposed after the Sochi Games, and is still technically banned from international sports competitions, including the Olympics — the sample was sent to Stockholm for processing.
Why it took so long for the positive result to become known is, frankly, inexplicable. The outcome didn’t surface until after Valieva — world record holder in the short — was crucial in elevating Russia to gold last Monday in the team event, where defending Olympic champion Canada placed fourth. But sure, blame Sweden. That lets Russia off the hook.
And no explanation given — indeed, it was apparently never examined in the closed-door hearing — why a healthy 15-year-old would have tested positive for a drug, trimetazidine, that is prescribed for angina in older patients with heart problems. World Anti-Doping Agency has banned it as a “stimulant’’ — ergo, performance-enhancing to some degree.
Valieva’s status as a “protected athlete’’ — younger than 16, typically not held responsible for taking banned substances — under the WADA code was among factors considered by the panel. She’s a child. She may have had no comprehension of what she was taking. She might not have any say in what she’s been given.
Everyone here feels immense sympathy for the girl. None of this appears to be her fault and whatever unfolds in the upcoming competition will be forever compromised, even if there’s not a trace of any banned substance in Valieva now, because doubtless she’ll be tested up the wazoo. This is a girl who clutched a stuffed animal for security at her practice sessions this week, when the walls — and the cameras — seemed to be closing in. Mostly she’d remained poised, ignoring the media attention and answering no questions as she hastened through the mixed zone.
The glare, however, has fallen particularly on her coach and the other people around Valieva, including the team’s doctor, while skulduggery by Russia is once again under the cheating microscope.
Tutberidze, who rarely gives interviews, has been along the boards during practice and surfaced publicly, briefly, on the weekend to insist on Russian state television, “We are absolutely certain that Kamila is innocent and clean.’’
She also bruited about a conspiracy theory. “It’s unclear why an athlete with a suspected doping on Dec. 25 was cleared to compete at the Olympics. Either it is an ill-fated confluence of circumstances, or it’s a very well-planned plan.’’
The CAS ruling doesn’t determine the fate of the team event gold, a matter that still hasn’t been resolved. Any medal Valieva might win here could be taken away at a future date, following a separate longer-term investigation of the positive doping test that will be led by — oh-oh — RUSADA.
And WADA has said it wants to investigate Valieva’s “entourage.’’ That means Tutberidze, the Cruella of Russian girl skating.
Right. They must be shaking in their valenkis.
The teenager might wipe out the competition with her brilliance. Or another Russian adolescent could step up and chuck young Kamila onto the crowded scrap heap of girls who glittered for a moment, for the glory of Russia, and were then replaced.
Thank you, next.
Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno