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Olympics: Women's single figure skating begins with drama

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tomorrow at the Winter Olympics, the women's individual figure skating competition gets underway, with 15-year-old Kamila Valieva the gold-medal favorite. Now, her participation was uncertain after it came to light that she recently tested positive for a banned drug. Now her saga has turned a highly anticipated event into one that is also hugely controversial. From Beijing, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The women's competition begins tomorrow on the ice, but the real start began today, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport made its decision whether Kamila Valieva can or can't keep skating in Beijing. Matthieu Reeb is the Court's director general.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MATTHIEU REEB: The CAS panel in charge of this matter has decided to let Ms. Valieva continue her participation in the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.

GOLDMAN: The decision was based on several factors, including her young age - Valieva is considered a protected person under the World Anti-Doping Code - and the bungling of her test. She submitted a sample last December, but the result wasn't revealed until these Olympics. Still to be determined at a later date, all the merits of the case, including whether Valieva intentionally doped when a banned heart medication was found in her system.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHILHARMONIC PROMENADE ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF RAVEL'S "BOLERO")

GOLDMAN: So now, Valieva will try to follow last month's dazzling win at the European Championships with an Olympic title in a figure skating competition that's no longer about figure skating. That's according to analyst Jackie Wong of the website Rocker Skating.

JACKIE WONG: The media circus and the figure skating community uproar is all about something that is not related to the skating itself, which is a crazy thing to say about a sports competition.

GOLDMAN: Former U.S. Olympic medal-winning skater Adam Rippon is in Beijing to help coach one of Valieva's competitors, Mariah Bell. Rippon says he feels cheated by this inescapable cloud of doubt, especially after marveling at Valieva's performance in the Olympic team competition before her positive test was revealed.

ADAM RIPPON: Every program she did, I was one of the first people to stand up because I was in awe of what I was seeing. And they ruined that. They ruined that for her, and they've ruined it for all of us who really were so excited that there was this incredible talent.

GOLDMAN: They, Rippon says, are the adults around Valieva, including her successful and controversial coach, who, according to reports, has used questionable practices to churn out a stream of champion teenage skaters. Over the weekend, the coach said of Valieva, she is innocent and clean; we are with our athletes in trouble and in joy to the end.

It's not lost on anyone that this scandal involves Russia, a country that's been under a dubious doping punishment at recent Olympics. The International Olympic Committee has kind of punished - banning the Russian flag, anthem and team name in response to reputable reports of Russia's state-sponsored doping system. Rob Koehler, the head of the advocacy group Global Athlete, says if the IOC and the World Anti-Doping Agency had stuck to principle...

ROB KOEHLER: ...And handed down a four-year ban to give the opportunity and to oversee the opportunity for cultural change in Russia, maybe we'd be having a very different discussion today.

GOLDMAN: But instead, a 15-year-old now is caught in Russia's seeming never-ending web of banned drugs. Koehler says it's child abuse and should be a wake-up call for every fan, athlete and parent to demand reform.

In the meantime, a clouded skating competition begins tomorrow. Will Valieva succeed amidst the scrutiny? If she does, her reward will not be forthcoming. The IOC announced Monday there will be no medal ceremony in Beijing for the team event won by Russia or the women's individual if Valieva is in the top three. No ceremonies until her case is resolved, and that's potentially months away.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF BENOIT AND SERGIO SONG, "LONG NEGLECTED WORDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.