BEIJING (Reuters) -Russian teenager Kamila Valieva dominated the Olympic ice on Tuesday night, fighting back tears as she completed a skate that put her at the top of the short programme standings with a doping cloud hanging over her.
The 15-year-old has been engulfed by a doping scandal in Beijing, but was cheered by spectators as she took to the ice for first time since news of her failed drugs test.
For two minutes and 40 seconds, millions around the world watched her every move, her music, In Memoriam by Kirill Richter, almost drowned out by the clicking of cameras.
Valieva tested positive for a banned heart drug after the national championships on Dec. 25, but the result was not revealed until Feb. 8, after she and her Russian Olympic Committee team mates had competed in the team competition in Beijing.
After dazzling the fans with a near-perfect free skate on Feb. 7, Tuesday’s routine got off to a less than perfect start.
Valieva had been expected to execute three high-flying triple jumps. But in front of her coach Eteri Tutberidze and doctor Filipp Shvetsky, also now in the harsh spotlight, she stumbled on the opening triple Axel – having fallen twice as she attempted that jump during afternoon practice.
Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, gold and silver medallists at the previous Winter Games in Pyeongchang who were also trained by the formidable Tutberidze, were also watching from the stands at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
Valieva, wearing a flowing crystal-encrusted purple dress, completed her triple Lutz-triple toeloop combination, but her score of 82.16 way was below the 90.18 score she got at the team event.
RUSSIAN SWEEP HOPES
Such is her dominance, however, that it was still enough to put her ahead of fellow Russian Anna Shcherbakova, the world champion, on 80.20, and third-placed Kaori Sakamoto of Japan with a score of 79.84.
Alexandra Trusova, also representing the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC), was fourth earning a score of 74.60, leaving the ‘Quad Squad’ with hopes of a medals sweep by the Russians, the first in women’s figure skating history at the Olympics.
It would also be Tutberidze’s personal hat trick as she also trains the 17-year-olds Shcherbakova and Trusova.
Valieva did not attend the post-event news conference while Shcherbakova declined to comment on her team mate’s situation.
The leading skaters progress to the free skate on Thursday, where no medals will be awarded if Valieva, whose positive drug test has cast a shadow over the entire Beijing Games, finishes in the top three.
“I feel sorry for anyone who gets on the podium. They won’t get that experience, and it is such a big part of the Olympic Games – to get the medals,” said British skater Natasha McKay.
“I can only speak for myself and that I advocate for clean sporting,” said U.S. skater Mariah Bell.
“That’s the whole idea of the Olympics and our careers, in general.”
Valieva was cleared to compete by sport’s highest court, but will not face a hearing for her doping charge until well after the end of the Games. Olympic officials cannot award the medals until the doping case is resolved.
Her defence argued in the Court of Arbitration for Sport that her positive test was caused by a mix-up with her grandfather’s heart medication, an IOC official said.
The banned drug is meant to treat chest pain but can add to an athlete’s endurance.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Chang-Ran Kim and Hritika Sharma; Editing by Pritha Sarkar, Ken Ferris, Kevin Liffey and Bill Berkrot)