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Women's figure skating underway at Olympics

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today at the Winter Olympics, 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva skated right past the raging controversy over her failed drug test. She finished first in the women's individual short program. It was an emotional performance for her. She did not even get the OK to compete until yesterday. That is when a sports tribunal decided that banishing Valieva from the Games would severely harm her. NPR's Tom Goldman was at the Capital Indoor Stadium in Beijing for the event. He's on the line from Beijing now. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

KELLY: What was the reaction? I'm just trying to imagine that moment when she finally got to step out onto the ice.

GOLDMAN: Well, we need to say there were no boos. In fact, there was applause and more applause from the sparse crowd than any other skater got during the four-hour competition.

KELLY: All right. And I gather the applause kept coming. She finished first.

GOLDMAN: You know, everyone talks about her jumps when she helped Russia win the team competition earlier in the Games. She became the first female skater to land a quadruple rotation jump in Olympic competition - a quad. There were no quads in her short program, but she started out attempting the very difficult triple axel, and she stumbled. She didn't fall, but it was an obvious mistake. But from there, Mary Louise, she locked into the grace and footwork and spins and connection to her music that make her look like a ballerina on blades. It wasn't her best short program, but good enough to put her into first. When she finished, she broke into tears, which she then fought off. The assumption was this was a reaction to the tension and allegation she's dealt with over the last few days.

KELLY: Yeah. And I just keep thinking, this woman - this girl is - I mean, she's 15. It's so much pressure.

GOLDMAN: Yeah.

KELLY: Did she talk afterwards? Did she come out and talk to the press?

GOLDMAN: You know, at first, it appeared, she was going to - that she was going to join in a press conference with the other two top skaters, her Russian teammate Anna Shcherbakova and third-place finisher Kaori Sakamoto of Japan. But Valieva ended up being a no-show. Certainly, had she been there, she would have been asked about the failed drug test and the way it was revealed. If you remember, she gave a sample in December of last year. It only came to light during these Games - really an unforgivable lag time. And she would have also been asked about the news that has seeped out via Russian media that she told officials she ingested the banned heart medication through contact with her grandfather, who'd been taking the medication. We have not confirmed any of that.

KELLY: What are other skaters there in Beijing saying about all this?

GOLDMAN: You know, many said they didn't want to talk about the case. They wanted to focus on their own skating and their Olympic experience. A few did weigh in. Mariah Bell of the U.S. said she's a huge advocate for clean sport, although she did not link that directly to Valieva. And Swedish skater Josefin Taljegard appeared to tear up when she said how upset she was that the scandal was distracting everyone from the beauty and the great athleticism in this competition.

KELLY: Well, tell us what to watch for next because it all comes down to tomorrow - right? - Thursday, the free skate.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, it does. Valieva is in first, favored to win. But if she does or finishes in the top three, there's going to be a very strange and hollow ending to this marquee event. The IOC says if she's a medal winner, there won't be a medal ceremony here in Beijing. Now, that's because when her case is investigated more fully, if it's found she, in fact, committed a doping violation, the standings would have to be reshuffled. If there's no violation, what happens Thursday stands. But either way, the medal winners are going to miss this very special moment here at the Games.

KELLY: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman there at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOSCA'S "BUSENFREUND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.