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'Chilling': Olympics chief criticizes response of Russian skater's entourage

Kamila Valieva was heavily favored to win gold, but missed out on a medal in the women’s figure skating Thursday after a devastating performance haunted by her doping saga.
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It was “chilling” to see the “tremendous coldness” Russian star Kamila Valieva received from her entourage after a mistake-filled routine on the ice in Beijing, International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said Friday. 

“Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere,” he told reporters Friday. “If you were interpreting the body language of them it got even worse because this was even some kind of dismissive gestures.” 

"I ... saw how she was received by her closest entourage with such, what appeared to be a tremendous coldness," he added. "It was chilling to see."

The 15-year-old prodigy was heavily favored to win gold, but missed out on a medal in the women’s figure skating Thursday after a devastating performance haunted by the doping saga that has upturned her career and drawn her into an international storm. 

Image: Figure Skating - Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Day 13
The raw emotion made for a dramatic end to a tumultuous week on and off the ice for Valieva.Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

The pressure on the young athlete was palpable as she fell to 4th Thursday after entering the day with the lead in the competition.

Valieva bobbled on a triple axel early in her routine before hitting the ice twice, all the while trying to compose herself. Then after she'd finished the teenage phenom crumpled for all the world to see. 

As she got off the ice visibly upset, Valieva was met by her famously hard-driving coach Eteri Tutberidze, whose first response was criticism.   

“Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?” Tutberidze asked a still reeling Valieva. “After the axel, you let it go.”

Tutberidze put her arm around her, but Valieva was visibly inconsolable. 

Tutberidze’s coaching methods were already in the spotlight after the Russian Anti-Doping Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency said they would investigate Valieva’s entourage following the revelation that she had tested positive for a banned substance ahead of the Games. 

But her reception of the young athlete Thursday has only added to mounting questions about Valieva’s team, and sparked a broader conversation about the suitability of minors competing in the Olympics and the rules that govern them.

The reaction of another distraught Russian skater, Alexandra Trusova, only added to the sorry picture. 

“I hate this sport,” she shouted at the side of the rink after winning silver in the same competition Thursday. “I won’t go onto the ice again.”

Trusova later said her comments about not skating again had been “emotional," the result of missing her family and her dogs, but didn’t commit to compete at next month’s world championships.

“All of this does not give me much confidence in this closest entourage of Kamila, neither with regard to what happened in the past nor as far as it concerns the future,” said Bach, without naming anyone. 

It was not just the IOC who were critical of the Russian Olympic Committee and its coaches.

NBC Olympics host Mike Tirico said Thursday that those surrounding Valieva had failed her.

“Portrayed by some this week as the villain, by others as the victim, she is, in fact, the victim of the villains,” he said. “Whether they orchestrated, prescribed or enabled, all of this is unclear. But what is certain — they failed to protect her.”

NBC News has contacted the Russian Olympic Committee for comment.

The result of Valieva’s Dec. 25 drug test only emerged last week, after she helped lead her Russian teammates to gold in the figure skating team event. She now stands to lose that medal if she is found to have committed a doping offense.

On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cleared her to skate in the women’s individual competition in part because as a minor she is a “protected person” subject to different rules than adults.

Russia is currently barred from international sports competitions from December 2020 through the end of this year due to a previous doping scandal, with its athletes instead competing under the banner of the Russian Olympic Committee. 

Meanwhile, Bach said Friday that the International Olympic Committee’s executive board is already starting to think about the problems of minors competing in senior competitions and would initiate discussions with different stakeholders.

Some in skating have called for the minimum age for Valieva's event to be raised from 15 to 17 in time for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

While there are clearly lessons to be learned, Valieva will have to wait four years to change her Olympic story. If the Russians choose to let her try.