The powerful Russian program cranks out talent like no other, and there’s been no repeat Olympian for four cycles now.
Crushing scenes of Kamila Valieva in tears Thursday after a disastrous long program took her out of medal contention might be the last image Olympics fans will have of the talented Russian figure skater.
At 15, Valieva could already be on the downside of her career doping scandal aside as she leaves Beijing as a long shot for another Winter Games appearance, in Italy in 2026.
The country’s powerful figure skating program cycles through talent like no other, with these Beijing Games marking the fourth straight Russian women’s team with no Olympic veterans.
In modern figure skating, which often puts a premium on lighter-weight athletes with maximum strength, even a teen like Valieva could be hard-pressed to stay ahead of younger competitors.
“This is a mill. This is a system where you put in lots of input into the beginning, and then it becomes a Darwinist nightmare with survival of the fittest,” said professor Peter Donnelly, the director of the University of Toronto’s Centre for Sport Policy.
“I think it’s unlikely” that Valieva will become a repeat Olympian, “especially with the mental trauma she’s gone through in the last few days,” Donnelly added.
In contrast to Russia’s one-and-done pattern, U.S. skater Karen Chen, 22, who finished 16th on Thursday, competed in 2018.
And 2018 U.S. Olympian Mirai Nagasu, then 24, was a veteran from the Games of 2010.
“Within the world of figure skating [in Russia] it is incredibly competitive,” said Robert Edelman, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in Russian history and the country’s sports culture. “It’s not just a few people whose parents are wealthy enough for the lessons and rink time. That’s the world we live in.”
Valieva had been the heavy favorite to win the individual gold in Beijing. She led her country to a team gold less than two weeks ago and was being hailed as one of the greatest skaters ever.
But news later emerged that Valieva had tested positive for a banned heart medication in late December, when she handily won the Russian national championship.
Trimetazidine is the generic form of a French medication typically prescribed to much older patients suffering from angina. The medication could help blood flow to the heart, and Valieva’s eligibility to compete was thrown into doubt.
The revelation came after she soared to first place after the short program. She was cleared to participate by a world sports arbitration body Monday, raising expectations that Russians would take all three medals.
Valieva, gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova, 17, and runner-up Alexandra Trusova, 17, stick late-program quad jumps with seemingly no effort that wasn’t the case even one Olympic cycle ago.
Russia’s Alina Zagitova was just 15 when she struck gold in 2018, landing triple-triple jump combinations impressive for the time but pale in comparison to multiple quads some top women now land in their free programs.
It would be a difficult challenge for any of Russia’s top three women in Beijing to come back for 2026 and hold off coach Eteri Tutberidze’s up-and-coming students.
One of them, Adelila Petrosian, 14, has already wowed the judges and could become the next starlet to head the future Russian women’s team.
Beyond the physical challenges of launching those quads, the mental toll of reaching the Olympics is almost too much to bear, even once.
“This is a moment where you genuinely have to say that poor kid,” former U.S. Olympian Ashley Wagner tweeted moments after Valieva’s crash in Beijing.
“She should not have ever been put in this position. She shouldn’t have been out on that ice. She shouldn’t have been put in a position where she became the face of a problem bigger than her.”
The pressure faced by Russian skaters to perform can’t be understated, as their country has been dominant for the past several Winter Games.
Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva took gold and silver in PyeongChang, South Korea, in 2018, while Adelina Sotnikova struck gold in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
A U.S. woman hasn’t taken gold since Sarah Hughes did so in 2002 in Salt Lake City. Sasha Cohen was the last U.S. woman to win an individual medal, when she captured silver in 2006 in Turin, Italy.
Rinkside cameras in Beijing on Thursday captured the moments after a devastated Valieva left the ice and the famously hard-driving Tutberidze offered no immediate comfort.
Valieva bobbled on a triple axel a short time into her routine before she hit the ice twice on a quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination and then again another quad toe loop.
“Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?” Tutberidze asked her saddened student. “After the axel, you let it go.”