clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The wild finish to the Olympic women’s figure skating final

Kamila Valieva, Russian score inflation, and a teammate’s full-blown temper tantrum.

A figure skater getting up from a fall on the ice.
Kamila Valieva failed to medal at the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Xavier Laine/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

When the dust settled at Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing Thursday, presumed favorite Kamila Valieva did not win an Olympic medal for women’s figure skating, setting off a series of extraordinary events. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), probably breathing a sigh of relief, was allowed to conduct a medal ceremony for the top three finishers: Russia’s Anna Shcherbakova (gold) and Alexandra Trusova (silver); and Japan’s Kaori Sakamoto (bronze). Had Valieva qualified for a medal, the ceremony would have been postponed because of an investigation into her failed drug test.

But instead of relishing a moment of joy and accomplishment in winning a silver medal, Valieva’s training partner and teammate Trusova threw a temper tantrum (in Russian) saying she hates the sport, hates that everyone has a gold medal, possibly hates their teammate Shcherbakova, and hates their coach Eteri Tutberidze.

Trusova reportedly told Tutberidze, “you knew everything” in the moments leading up to the medal ceremony. Tutberidze has a history of skaters that have talked about her restrictive, even abusive coaching methods — she lectured Valieva after her free skate.

Trusova left Tutberidze in 2020 to train with Evgeni Plushenko and left Plushenko in May 2021 to reunite and train with Tutberidze heading into the Olympics.

Under the cloud of Valieva’s doping controversy and Trusova’s post-medal fireworks, there was also skating that happened. Heading into Thursday’s free skate competition, there was an outcry from skating fans and experts about Tuesday’s short program and how Trusova and Valieva had been over-scored despite having made egregious mistakes in their routines. Here’s how it all went down.

Trusova dominated the free skate, Shcherbakova won gold, and Valieva crumbled

If skating was purely a jumping competition, which some critics say it’s already become, Trusova would have a right to be upset about not winning the gold. In her free skate, Trusova landed five quadruple jumps. That’s astonishing when you consider that before these Olympics, no woman had ever landed a quad in Olympic competition. (Nathan Chen landed five quadruple jumps in his free skate this year as well.) By landing these jumps, she amassed a huge technical total of 106.16 points:

Trusova’s free skate scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

Trusova’s technical score put her well ahead of almost the entire women’s field, the very distinct majority of whom do not throw quads into their programs. The only other women who can hit quads are her teammates Shcherbakova and Valieva.

In recent years, skating broadcasts have made it super easy for casual fans to follow along with the routine. For example, in NBC’s broadcast there’s a small box that tells you the jump or technical element a skater just performed and the GOE-adjusted number of points they got. It allows viewers at home to tell who’s in the lead and where the current skater stacks up; skaters in competition can make these same calculations.

Shcherbakova, who had a six-point lead after the short program, skated after Trusova. She probably saw the jumps that Trusova threw and knew her score. Shcherbakova would know that she needed to hit at least one if not both quads to keep up with Trusova’s technical score and remain in the hunt for the medal. She landed both a quadruple flip-triple toe loop (4F+3T) combination and quadruple flip (4F) as well as combinations in the back half of her program, which gives her a 10 percent bonus. Her technical score finished at 100.49; while not as high as Trusova’s, it was enough to keep her close.

Shcherbakova’s scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

But there’s another important score that viewers don’t see (but skaters do) and doesn’t get much explanation. It’s called the Program Components Score (PCS) and is considered the presentation and artistry aspect of skating.

A PCS tally has five categories: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation of the music. Judges are looking for features like speed and control when it comes to “skating skills” and are looking for elements like intricate footwork and body positions when it comes to “transitions.” The last three categories in a PCS have to do with performance, rhythm, and the execution of a routine; they’re a little more self-explanatory.

Given that Trusova’s technical score virtually erased the lead Shcherbakova had, what decided the gold medal between the two was Shcherbakova’s PCS. Shcherbakova tallied a 75.26 factored score (blue):

Shcherbakova’s PCS scores.

Trusova trailed her with 70.97 points, roughly four points behind.

Trusova’s PCS scores.

The final tally was essentially in that PCS differential, as Shcherbakova finished the two-day competition with 255.95 points to Trusova’s 251.73 points. Kaori Sakamoto finished well behind them with 233.13 points.

Valieva had a dismal skate, with falls and under-rotation on many of her jumps. She finished out of medal contention about nine points behind Sakamoto at 224.09.

Valieva’s scoresheet from the 2022 Olympics.

Does Trusova have a right to be upset, and do the Russians deserve their high PCS scores?

According to former skaters, insiders, and experts, those Program Component Scores are arguably inflated.

“In terms of quality, you’re always looking for skaters with the most speed, skaters that show a lot of power, but at the same time are able to do intricate footwork and turn and toe steps that use real skating tricks on the ice ... rather than just skating and pushing on two feet or being super plain, or skating but only using only your arms in movements,” Polina Edmunds, a former US Olympian and US National silver medalist, told me after Tuesday’s short program.

Anna Shcherbakova skating!
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

For the Russian gold and silver medalists, this artistry has traditionally been lacking. Edmunds says that Shcherbakova “is actually a skater that appears to look like a ballerina, but as soon as she starts moving, you can tell that she’s not trained” and that “a lot of her movements are very unaesthetic and unappealing.”

Trusova, similarly, is known in the sport as an athletic jumper, and her free skate tends to resemble something more along the lines of a warmup to music than a routine; jump after jump, with not much artistry in between. A former skater who asked that their name not be used described Trusova’s skating as “so unpleasant.”

Experts like Dave Lease, who runs the skating analysis YouTube Channel The Skating Lesson, tell me they’ve questioned how the judges have marked Trusova and Shcherbakova, both in PCS and grade of execution of her jumps. Of Trusova, he says, “There was no attempt at a program, no attempt at performance execution, and zero attempt at interpretation.”

Alexandra Trusova skating on the Olympic ice.
Fred Lee/Getty Images

Lease and Edmunds explained to me, separately, that skaters like Trusova and Shcherbakova’s teammate Valieva, or Japan’s Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi all possess markedly better skating skills (that should be rewarded in their PCS numbers). Yet somehow Russians tend to be given higher scores over their competitors.

The easiest and most frustrating explanation for the PCS numbers from the free skate and the controversial results of the short program is that as much as skating tries to be an objective sport, it’s not.

“Even though we like to feel and say that everyone has an equal chance when you step on the ice, depending on the warm-up group you’re in, depending on your past titles and medals, and depending on your history, you already have a set point that you start out at,” Edmunds told me.

Edmunds explains that judges have a preconceived idea of what the winning order of skaters is supposed to look like. They tally numbers corresponding to that order, and things like high PCS scores are given perhaps because of the history of the skater rather than what they’re putting in their programs. Lease confirms that judges “already sort of knew who the top five skaters were going to be in the short program.”

This helps explain why, for example, Trusova fell in Tuesday’s short program but still received higher PCS marks and comparable technical marks to Japan’s Higuchi, who skated much cleaner. This placed order benefit of the doubt may also affect the technical elements that the Russian skaters wield. Shcherbakova and Trusova have a tendency to pre-rotate their jumps (i.e., rotate before they’re in the air), a shortcut to getting a high number of revolutions, but this technical deficiency is not often reflected in how their jumps are scored.

Edmunds, who’s seen both sides of the sport, says this score inflation does a disservice to casual fans who tune in at big events like the Olympics and can’t understand the discrepancies. But, she told me, the most discouraging effect is on the athletes.

“It undercuts achievement from people who have a different style on the ice,” Edmunds said. “Speaking of the rest of the season leading up to this, and in the past few seasons, this has absolutely happened. And that’s just unfortunate because there are strong athletes from all over and they all deserve the same recognition.”

What happens next for Kamila Valieva?

Heading into the women’s event, the big story was whether or not Valieva would win a medal. Valieva was allowed to skate at the event because of an arbitration decision, but the International Olympic Committee said that because she was under investigation for doping, she would only be awarded a medal after the case closes and if she were ostensibly found not guilty. Given the protests to her skating in the first place, the IOC probably was relieved she didn’t place so as to avoid another round of controversy about the medal ceremony.

Valieva and her coach Eteri Tutberidze.
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

But just because she didn’t win and just because the Olympics are coming to a close doesn’t mean that the saga will stop. The World Anti-Doping Agency said that because Valieva is a minor, they will be investigating the adults supervising Valieva — which the skating world has taken to mean coach Eteri Tutberidze and her entourage.

There’s also the matter of Tutberidze not only coaching Valieva but coaching Shcherbakova and Trusova too. The shadow of Valieva’s doping extends to them and their results because of their shared mentors. And this all is punctuated by Trusova’s teary-eyed tantrum about Tutberidze “knowing everything” and Tutberidze reportedly telling Trusova “this is your defeat.”

Though the Olympic women’s event wrapped up on Thursday, the drama, controversy, and investigation surrounding Russia’s team show no signs of stopping.