Hundreds of medals have been won at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but the athlete who will be remembered as the face of the Games is a figure skater who finished fourth.
Fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva, who was told she has tested positive for a banned substance two days after her Russian Olympic Committee finished first in the team figure skating, stood in tears on Thursday after a disastrous performance destroyed her medal hopes in the individual event.
That she even took the ice on Thursday has subjected the International Olympic Committee to criticism of its handling of the most significant doping scandal since Russia’s state-sponsored programme at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
It was just one of many controversies and challenges that the IOC has had to navigate at Beijing 2022, ranging from the threat from coronavirus to a host of simmering political tensions including a western diplomatic boycott over China’s human rights abuses.
“The intensity of this Olympic experience was above and beyond what I have experienced before in Olympic Games,” Thomas Bach, IOC president, said in his closing press conference.
He cited moments of camaraderie between athletes before ultimately spending close to an hour discussing the “disturbing” final scenes of Valieva’s skate, and the “chilling” reception she received from her coach after crumpling under the pressure.
The Valieva affair has demonstrated the difficulty that the IOC faces in rectifying problems quickly at its own event. Because the positive sample came during a domestic competition in December, the case was handled by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada), which granted her the ability to compete while on appeal.
Asked if the Olympics were ultimately damaged by Valieva’s participation in Beijing, Bach pointed to the IOC’s subsequent appeal of the Rusada decision. “We did not want her to participate and we lost the contest. We have to respect the rule of law,” he said.
Fellow competitors said it was difficult to escape the maelstrom that had engulfed the women’s figure skating event. Karen Chen, a US figure skater who stumbled through her own routine on Thursday to finish 16th, said: “I’ve been pretty fatigued from everything skating-related and not-skating related.”
The furore over Valieva has distracted from tensions surrounding China that were central in the run-up to the Games and in early press conferences — although these issues have never been far away.
They ranged from the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang that prompted the western diplomatic boycott, to the wellbeing of Peng Shuai, the tennis player who made and then retracted allegations of sexual assault against a top Chinese official last year.
Margaret Lewis, a China law expert and professor at Seton Hall University, said the IOC had “not been a robust force for human rights” and that Peng “is just part of that”.
“Now the question is: what is the international community going to do about it?” she added. “Is this just going to ‘wash, rinse, repeat’ every four years? Or is there really a mechanism to review.”
The authorities have repeatedly emphasised the apolitical nature of the competition, with Bach stressing on the eve of the Games that his organisation would not comment on “political issues”. Yet sensitive topics also crept in towards the end of the final week.
Yan Jiarong, a Beijing organising committee spokesperson, said on Thursday in response to questions about the possible sourcing of clothing from Xinjiang that “so-called forced labour” in the region was “lies”. A day later, Bach referred to the incident as a “problem” and said the IOC had contacted the organisers over it.
For China, the Games were a success not only in terms of performance — the country was fourth in the medals table going into the closing weekend, with eight golds — but also the effectiveness of measures to stop the spread of coronavirus, which became a test case of its wider response to the pandemic.
Cases within the strict “closed-loop” system, a combination of hotels and venues where the Olympics took place which was cut off entirely from the rest of Beijing and China, fell to zero days before the event finished.
From late January through to Thursday, there were 607 cumulative cases identified by more than 1.6mn tests from tens of thousands of participants, most of which were captured through airport arrivals.
Ultimately, amid the myriad controversies and questions surrounding the Games, the IOC took initiative on Valieva and appealed to have her removed from competition. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, in its decision to deny the appeal, said taking away her ability to participate would cause the skater “irreparable harm”.
Days later, Bach could only shift the onus of responsibility away from the IOC. He pointed to ongoing investigations by Wada and Rusada into Valieva’s entourage.
“We can only hope for her to see that this is addressed in the right way and there is not a traumatic experience for such a young woman,” he said.