Ice maiden stares at tough future

The Russian doping issue could dash the Olympic dreams of stars like Medvedeva

Ice maiden stares at tough future

Still just 17 years old, Evgenia Medvedeva already skates like one of the greats, as she made clear by defending her women’s title with steel and grace at the World Championships in Helsinki.

But greatness in figure skating traditionally passes through the Olympics. And at this stage, it is not only uncertain whether Medvedeva, a lightly built, hugely gifted Russian, will succeed in extending her remarkable run of dominance to the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It is uncertain whether she will even get the chance to compete there.

Russia’s athletics programmes rightly remain in the doghouse, and it seemed fitting that Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, was looking down from the Hartwall Arena stands as Medvedeva won gold and broke her own world records for total points and for points in the free skate.

Bach and the IOC will ultimately decide whether the Russian team will be allowed to compete in Pyeongchang or be banned as punishment for the vast Russian doping programme at the last Winter Games in Sochi.

Medvedeva knows the issue is a deeply sensitive one. Normally spontaneous and effervescent, she answered only after a long pause and a deep breath when asked how she viewed her victory in light of the country’s recent problems.

“Well, that’s one of the most difficult questions I’ve had,” she said through an interpreter. “I think, well, I hope that all the work my coach and I are putting in brings something positive to the country, and it is sad to hear all the news and read the news. I think we should just support each other. I know from my experience what a great role support plays, and so you just should not give up and keep moving forward.”

Considering the IOC’s reluctance so far to punish Russia as a whole, the odds appear to be in her favour. There is also the possibility that even if the IOC does ban the Russian Olympic team, it could allow individual Russian athletes to compete under certain conditions. But pressure is undoubtedly being applied, externally and internally. This year, the president of US Figure Skating, Samuel Auxier, said at a news conference that Russia should be banned from the 2018 Games. US Figure Skating later released a statement clarifying that those comments expressed Auxier’s personal views and not the federation’s official position.

Executives at many national anti-doping agencies have also called for Russia to be excluded from international sports events, and the nation’s federation remains banned from international track and field. This week, Craig Reedie, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, urged the IOC to make a decision about the Russian team’s eligibility for Pyeongchang at the “earliest possible date” to end the uncertainty.

That would be out of institutional character, and the recent tension between the IOC and WADA does not make a quick resolution likely, no matter how compelling the independent reports by Canadian investigator Richard McLaren released last year that supplied evidence of widespread tampering of doping samples by Russian authorities.

What is clear is that Medvedeva, if she competes, would be one of the main attractions in Pyeongchang and the biggest Winter Olympic star in Russia who does not play hockey.

“She’s just pretty, uh, unstoppable,” said Ravi Walia, who coaches the 21-year-old Canadian skater Kaetlyn Osmond.

Medvedeva’s free programme, performed to music from the film “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” was her latest tour de force under pressure: brimming with difficulty and her trademark lightness and flow. It was also free of major errors, with no hint of a stumble or — perish the thought — a fall.

“It’s just done with such ease,” said Tracy Wilson, the former Canadian ice dancer who is now a prominent coach and television analyst. “She takes off lightly and lands lightly, and it’s very natural. I just feel like it’s a connection with the ice, and it’s a timing. If you go at it too hard, you push it away. It’s like that perfect balance.”

Medvedeva does make it look easy, sometimes too easy to fully appreciate. Her compatriot Anna Pogorilaya, in contrast, had a hard time, falling repeatedly.

“I sort of saw that something happened, but just before I compete I am so focused in myself I even don’t notice if someone is talking to me,” she said of Pogorilaya’s travails. “Everything outside I completely shut it out.”

That is quite a talent, one among many she possesses with skates on her feet, and the ability to block out distractions and outside trouble could prove particularly useful as the IOC and others debate the issues that could affect a two-time world champion’s chances of being an Olympic champion, too.

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