This was not supposed to be the way story ended. Not in anybody’s book.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach on Friday opened his final Olympic Games press conference referring to some of the magical moments of the Beijing Winter Games before detailing at length “the very sad story about Kamila Valieva”.
The 15-year-old figure skating prodigy from Russia came to Beijing to be crowned Olympic champion. Instead, her journey ended in public humiliation and a performance that resembled a Shakespearean tragedy on ice, with a doping allegation yet to be resolved.
It was her teammate, instead, who won gold. And yet world champion Anna Shcherbakova said the experience left her with “a hollow feeling”.
The IOC avoided the embarrassment of having to postpone a medal ceremony, which it would have done if Valieva finished in the top three, but the Olympic president broke with tradition by watching it elsewhere rather than at the venue.
He described what he saw as disturbing.
“I was very, very disturbed … when I watched the competition on TV,” the former Olympic fencer said.
“I know from my athlete time a little bit about pressure, but this pressure is beyond my imagination.
“But this was not all. When I saw afterwards how she was received by her closest entourage … with what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling.”
While the athlete’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, may have been giving her best ice-queen impersonation, the reaction of other Russians was red-hot fury.
They feel they are being singled out again, still paying the price for a state-sanctioned doping program that unravelled after the Sochi Winter Games of 2014.
Clean athletes feel undermined. They don’t understand why the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) could determine, 24 hours before she skated, that Valieva should be allowed on the ice when anyone else who tested positive would be suspended immediately.
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accused the CAS of “rewriting” the World Anti-Doping Code, which states under-age athletes are “protected persons” but, according to WADA, that should not prevent mandatory suspensions for testing positive. CAS disagrees.
While the Games themselves draw to a close on Sunday, this story is far from over.
For now, the teenager has been reunited with her family, flying out of Beijing on Friday and as far away as she could get from her Olympic experience; one that may haunt her for years.
Next, there will be an expedited investigation by Russian anti-doping body RUSADA. This is expected to focus on Valieva’s entourage to see what, if any, role they played in the athlete testing positive to a banned substance.
The World Anti-Doping Agency’s independent intelligence and investigations unit will also be looking into it.
The other big-wigs of sport will meet to decide whether there should be age restrictions on athletes at major events such as the Olympics, and whether there should be a “protected persons” clause at all in the World Anti-Doping Code.
And the International Skating Union council has already flagged “a proposal to increase the competitors’ age limit to 17 across all ISU figure skating disciplines”.
The Valieva case not only raises questions about her own future and short- to long-term wellbeing, but the future of all young athletes working inside a system that continues to churn out gold medallists.
The factory of champions clearly comes at a cost.
One of the questions put to the IOC president at his final media conference in Beijing was: “Is this child abuse?”
“The inquiry into the entourage which is responsible for protecting her … I hope that this will bring clarity … so that the full truth is coming to light and that then the people responsible for this will be held [accountable] in the right way … in the strongest possible way,” Bach said.
A journalist from Channel 1 Russia asked Bach whether he bore any responsibility since the IOC was one of the parties that discussed private details of Valieva’s positive test publicly, leading to “hate speech” and “the bullying of a 15-year-old athlete”, as well as instigating a CAS hearing with the intention of having her suspended from the Games.
Bach pointed out none of those things would have happened if there was not first a positive drug test.
“There is a positive ‘A’ sample and this … has to be dealt with,” Bach said.
“You do not solve problems by ignoring them.
“The different opinions being expressed by people all over the world is a different issue. We are dealing with a minor, a 15-year-old girl who has a drug in her body which should not be in her body.
“The ones who have administered this drug … these are the ones who are guilty.”
When the story of Valieva’s positive drug test was first made public, outrage was led by American media, which then spread around the world.
According to some of the headlines, the reputation of the entire Olympic movement was at stake.
This was on top of months of criticism directed at the IOC for awarding of the games to China despite its human rights record. Nobody at head office was in the mood for another drawn-out saga tarnishing its multi-billion-dollar brand.
So a teenage skater, in Beijing to realise her dreams, needed to be exorcised.
The IOC, WADA and the ISU all headed to CAS arguing for the reinstatement of a suspension first issued by Russian anti-doping authorities, which had been overturned a day later when the athlete successfully appealed.
If you needed convincing just how seriously this matter was to the parties involved, appearing at the CAS hearing were 12 counsels, one general counsel and four anti-doping experts.
CAS dismissed the appeal, citing, among other things, that to suspend the athlete from an Olympic Games for a test that was taken but not processed for more than 40 days was unjust given the possibility she may be cleared when the anti-doping investigation was finalised but would have no possibility of recompense.
“Put simply, athletes should not be subject to the risk of serious harm occasioned by anti-doping authorities’ failure to function effectively,” CAS said.
CAS also invoked the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, which in article three states: “All organisations concerned with children should work towards what is best for each child.”
There is no mention in the convention that the rights of the child should occasionally make way for corporate and brand protection.
Until now, nobody has accepted any level of blame for what has unfolded, and yet the only one who has suffered is the 15-year-old figure skater.
Petulant American commentators refused to speak over Valieva’s performance in the short program on Tuesday night. The IOC, while accepting the CAS decision, made no attempt to hide their disapproval of it.
Then when Valieva skated in the free program on Thursday night, where everything went wrong, the commentators were gasping. They saw a vulnerable child falling apart while trying to perform on the world’s biggest stage. Their tune changed. Public sentiment also shifted.
By Friday morning, the IOC was also referencing the “very sad story of Kamila Valieva”.
Russian journalist Alexey Yaroshevskiy told ABC Sport there are lots of theories around the Valieva story, most of them conspiracy theories.
“What strikes me the most, what upsets me the most, is that nothing has been proven, nothing has been established, there is obviously a thing like presumption of innocence … all that has been thrown out the window,” he said.
“The girl has been lambasted by people who I am supposed to call colleagues, but I don’t really want to do that. That poisoned everything.
“The tragedy last night [Thursday]and I can’t call it any other word, that was really hard to take.
“I have covered multiple sporting events from different parts of the planet, but I would say this is probably the hardest one.
“Several of the journalists here in Beijing have done so much damage to the little girl, and I’m sure she saw what’s been written about her in the news.
“My hope is we’ll be avoiding all that stuff in the future.”
Headlines, they say, are cheap.
Headlines also come and go.
Sadly, the impact they have can last a lifetime.
Hopefully, after the Games, the IOC will work as hard to answer the question #WhereIsValieva as it did before the games in answering the question #WhereIsPengShuai.