BEIJING – There was a moment during practice for figure skating's Olympic gala on Sunday when American gold medalist Nathan Chen and his good friend, Canada's Keegan Messing, skated across the ice and popped a backflip in unison.
Now, backflips aren't allowed in competition. They're considered too dangerous. But they are allowed in exhibitions that are done purely for fun, and who didn't need a little figure skating fun by the end of the Beijing Games?
After all, they are certain to be remembered for things decidedly un-fun.
There was Kamila Valieva, the overwhelming favorite to win women's gold, tumbling to the ice during her free skate. If the hopes harbored by 15-year-old Russian, who spent her Olympics at the center of the latest doping scandal, weren't crushed by her fourth-place finish, they were when she was criticized by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze.
There was her teammate, Anna Shcherbakova, who said she felt “emptiness inside” after winning the gold, and another Russian skater, Alexandra Trusova, who cried out that she would never set foot on the ice again after a silver medal that must have felt even more empty than Shcherbakova's gold.
“I am not happy with the result,” Trusova said afterward. "There is no happiness.”
There also wasn't a lot of happiness for the U.S. and Japanese teams, who earned silver and bronze medals, respectively, behind the Russian team. The International Olympic Committee refused to hold a medal ceremony for the event out of fear that the gold medal will ultimately be stripped from the Russians following a full doping investigation into Valieva and her entourage, resulting in the reallocation of the medals at some point in the future.
IOC president Thomas Bach offered the Americans and Japanese an Olympic torch as a placeholder memento, but that didn't sit well with either team. U.S. skaters filed an emergency appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Saturday to have the medal ceremony in Beijing, but it was rejected without a reason given — though one is promised later.
“They should have a ceremony for the clean athletes that delivered,” said U.S. pairs skater Alexa Knierim, who performed with Brandon Frazier both of their programs in the team event. “They deserve that moment.”
There are highs and lows to every figure skating program at the Olympics. It's only natural given the razor-thin margin — in the pairs event, it was 64 hundredths of a point — that often separates silver from gold. But the lows decidedly outweighed the highs in Beijing, where the International Skating Union was left to answer some serious questions.
Is it right for a 15-year-old such as Valieva, who is considered a minor by the Olympics but is competing at the senior level, to be subjected to the pressure and worldwide scrutiny that comes with performing at the Winter Games?
Is a convoluted scoring system that too often seems arbitrary and subjective, put in place after another scandal-plagued Olympic figure skating program in Salt Lake City in 2002, due for another massive overhaul?
And perhaps most importantly, should the Russian team — known here as ROC, which is short for Russian Olympic Committee — that has continued to flaunt Olympic drug testing protocols ever since the 2014 Sochi Games get to compete at all?
The last one is a question for the IOC, not figure skating, but it came to roost on the ice of Capital Indoor Stadium.
“On one hand, my heart breaks for (Valieva) because of the acts of the adults in her life and the failures of the Russian and IOC-run systems that permanently cast a dark cloud over her performances,” said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "On the other hand, all of us who value clean sport are sick to our stomachs because of these catastrophic failures that have tragically robbed clean athletes of their sacrifice and Olympic dreams.”
Despite all those head-shaking moments in the Beijing bubble, though, there were plenty of world records, broken barriers and soaring performances to stir the emotions of figure skating fans that stuck it out through the crud.
There was Chen, blasting off to “Rocket Man” on his way to ending a four-year redemptive quest for gold. French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who won a gold that likewise eluded them at the Pyeongchang Games. And the Chinese pairs team of Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who gave the host nation a gold medal on Saturday night.
When their scores were read, Sui and Han leaped out of their seats to celebrate, and the carefully curated crowd of Chinese fans in the arena finally let loose the kind of exultant roar that had been missing for weeks in Beijing.
“We did our best and enjoyed this whole process. We’re happy about the score and the recognition of the spectators, and we made a world record,” Han said with a smile. "It’s important we caught the opportunity when we had it.”
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