In the end it became one of the most uncomfortable, unpleasant moments of sport in recent memory.
After a week of outrage following a failed drugs test, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva left the ice in tears as her controversial Olympics came to a distressing conclusion.
“It should never have happened,” said former Olympic champion Robin Cousins, who himself was overcome by emotion during his commentary.
Elsewhere, there was anger and sympathy as Valieva’s Games came to an end…
Who is Valieva?
Valieva came into the Beijing Games as the biggest star in a highly-rated Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) squad.
The acclaim grew louder when, in the opening days of competition, she became the first woman to land a quadruple jump at an Olympic Games, doing so in the team event.
But soon after that jump helped ROC claim gold, the story began to change.
The medal ceremony was unusually delayed and it was later revealed Valieva had failed a drugs test in December.
She had tested positive for trimetazidine, used in the prevention of angina attacks but on the banned list because it has been proven to improve physical efficiency.
Why was Valieva still competing?
But Valieva was allowed to compete in the individual event – first in Tuesday’s short programme and then the Thursday free skate – because a court ruling lifted her provisional ban following a series of appeals and re-appeals.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) pointed to “exceptional circumstances” regarding her age and the timing of the test result, which came during the Games and nearly six weeks after the sample was taken.
It said it would do Valieva “irreparable harm” if she were not allowed to compete.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said there would not be a medal ceremony if the Russian finished on the podium. The full doping investigation is yet to follow, meaning Valieva’s score could still be removed.
What happened in the final session of the event?
So to Thursday and the climax of the competition.
As the leader after the short programme, in which she stumbled but comfortably led the standings, Valieva was the last to skate – a score of 255.95 by her team-mate Anna Shcherbakova the one to beat.
But Valieva faltered early on in her routine and, with the eyes of the world on her, tumbled to the ice after one of a number of errors, the crowd gasping in disbelief.
“After her second error it was like she was going around as quick as she could,” former Olympic champion Jayne Torvill said afterwards.
“It was like she just wanted to get it over with and get off the ice.”
When her routine did end the teenager was soon in tears and she sobbed while waiting for her scores. She finished fourth, outside the medal places.
‘Someone thought having her do that was better than going home to her family’
Cousins, Great Britain’s 1980 figure skating Olympic champion, was also emotional while analysing the action.
“Someone thought having her do that was better than having her go home to her family and to wait and sort this out, knowing she could have two more Olympics ahead of her,” he said, while pausing to settle his own emotions.
“I am slightly speechless for all the wrong reasons.
“The talent and the unquestionable quality of Valieva – to see it put into this arena in that way, it should never have happened.”
‘What is the long-term effect on this 15-year-old child?’
You almost wanted to look away, it felt wrong to be watching.
If you had not followed the story for the past 10 days, you would have just seen a skater – albeit a gold-medal favourite – falling a few times.
But this was a 15-year-old, whose failed drugs test has played out very publicly, and who had already been in tears on the ice once this week.
She had a lot of Russian support in the arena and there were big gasps when she fell for the first time. But as the mistakes racked up and she fell again on the ice, it was more of a sympathetic applause of encouragement that began to ripple.
She did not immediately let her emotions show, only a throw of the hand into the air. But then the tears came and she just sobbed while awaiting the result. The chants from those on their feet of “well done” brought her little comfort.
Watching this unfold, you could not help wonder what would be the long-term effect of having gone through all this on the world’s biggest stage. Watching this unfold, all you could think was – she’s a child.
‘She became the face of a problem bigger than her’ – what next?
The next step will be the authorities dealing with the matter of Valieva’s failed drugs test in full.
That will determine whether the ROC gold in the team event – and Valieva’s fourth-placed finish in the individual event – will stand.
There will also be intense questions posted to the authorities – the IOC, ROC, Cas and the International Skating Union, in particular – about how this situation was allowed to develop to the stage it overshadowed the competition and left a 15-year-old in this position.
The World Anti-doping Agency (Wada) has already said it will be investigating the teenager’s entourage, including coaches, doctors and other adults surrounding her.
The eventual gold medal winner, the 17-year-old Shcherbakova is, like Valieva, coached by Russian Eteri Tutberidze.
“We have been marvelling at these youngsters coming up,” Cousins said. “We watched them – 12 years old with the quad [quadruple jump].
“How is this happening? We know they teach them really young.
“There is obviously an issue – how and why? It is not a question of talent. It is how is that talent being nurtured or created?”