BEIJING, China — A Russian woman was standing atop the figure skating podium at the Beijing Games on Thursday night.
It just wasn't the one anyone expected. Even the fact that there was a podium was a surprise.
Anna Shcherbakova, the overlooked world champion, delivered a clean performance in her free skate at historic Capital Indoor Stadium to win a stunning gold medal, while teammate Kamila Valieva — at the center of the latest Russian doping controversy — tumbled out of the medals altogether with a mistake-filled end to her Olympic dream.
Shcherbakova landed both of her quads to finish with 255.95 points, edging out another teammate, Alexandra Trusova, who landed five somewhat shaky quads of her own to finish four points back in second place.
Kaori Sakamoto of Japan grabbed bronze medal to break up the expected Russian sweep of the Olympic podium.
With the fewest quads among coach Eteri Tutberdize's “Quad Squad,” the 17-year-old Shcherbakova instead relied on back-to-back clean programs with peerless artistry and unmatched skill. It culminated in her free skate Thursday night, when Shcherbakova landed her opening quad flip-triple toe loop combination and never looked back.
She followed in the footsteps of Adelina Sotnikova and Alina Zagitova to give Russia three consecutive gold medals.
Meanwhile, Valieva was left sobbing in the kiss-and-cry area. The 15-year-old phenom was heavily favored to win Olympic gold but is headed home with nothing from the women’s program and a looming investigation into her positive drug test.
Valieva was shaky on an opening quad salchow, then stepped out on a triple axel and fell altogether on a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination. Valieva fell again on her other quad toe loop, keeping her from completing that combination, and spun out on another jump late in the program — though by that point, her fate was sealed.
The calamitous performance only made Shcherbakova’s look better.
Moments after Valieva walked between the curtains and out of the arena, workers began setting up for a flower ceremony that the International Olympic Committee said would not take place if she was in the top three. Medals will be handed out Friday at a ceremony that would not have occurred in Beijing if Valieva had reached the podium.
Valieva tested positive for a banned heart medication at the Russian championships in December, but the result was not revealed until last week, shortly after she helped to win a team gold medal that is now also in doubt.
She was cleared to compete earlier this week by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that she had protected status as a minor and would suffer “irreparable harm” if she was not allowed to perform. The court did not rule on the full scope of the case, leaving that anti-doping investigators.
The court’s decision has cast a polarizing shadow over one of the marquee events of the Winter Games.
“Do I feel sorry for her? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t say so,” Sakamoto said after her short program. “Of course, there were moments where I thought: ‘What’s going to happen? What’s happening?’”
Valieva has claimed the drug triggering her positive, trimetazidine, entered her system by accident. But the World Anti-Doping Agency filed a brief stating that two other substances she acknowledged taking, L-carnitine and Hypoxen — though both legal — undercut the argument that a banned substance could have been ingested in error.
“You use all of that to increase performance,” U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart said.
In the meantime, IOC President Thomas Bach tried to appease angry American skaters by offering Olympic torches to those who helped win their team silver medals, The Associated Press learned late Wednesday. The torches are meant to serve as holdover gifts while the world awaits the resolution of Valieva’s doping case.
“It’s unfortunate that we aren’t able to get our medals,” said Karen Chen, who competed in the team event for the U.S. and finished 16th in the women’s program Thursday night. “I have yet to see the torch, but once that is like given to us, I think it will be such a special moment that we will cherish forever.”
As the doping case unfolded around her, Valieva tried to go about her business as usual, taking part in every practice on her schedule. And though she looked calm and cool during a run-through for her short program, the first cracks began to appear when she skated off the ice and broke down in tears — even though she was leading the event.
The collapse came with the eyes of the world watching Thursday night.