With Kamila Valieva seizing the top spot, 25 skaters advance to the next segment. Normally, only the top 24 move on from the short program. But these Games aren't normal.



Women figure skaters took to the ice earlier this morning at the Beijing Winter Games - among them, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the Russian superstar. Valieva is at the center of a doping scandal. She was allowed to skate in this competition after testing positive for a banned substance, and there was a whole lot of backlash. NPR's Brian Mann has been at the arena, where the skater and 29 other women competed in the individual short program. Brian, first, let's start with the skating. How did Valieva - I keep saying her name wrong - Valieva look on the ice? How'd she do?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, Kamila Valieva was masterful, graceful, remarkable to watch. She did stumble once, Rachel, and was tearful afterward. But the rest of her performance was very close to flawless, and in the end, the judges put her at the very top. They put her at the very top of the rankings here, in line for another gold medal. She did not speak to reporters or journalists afterwards. But she dominated here this first night of these women's individual figure skating competition.

MARTIN: You've been talking to many of the women who skated tonight. What are they saying about the doping scandal that she's involved in?

MANN: Yeah. This was really powerful to be in this room where the women were coming through after skating. And they clearly are dismayed by the fact that so much attention has shifted to this doping controversy. Many of the women said that they did not want to talk specifically about Valieva, except to express compassion for the 15-year-old who is at the center now of this international sports, really, controversy scandal. But they did say they want to compete in a clean sport. They're not sure that that's happening now. One of the Americans, Mariah Bell, spoke about the fact that she was trying to stay focused on her own competition. She said she would have to give up her own power as a woman and a skater if she focused on Valieva, so she tried to do her own performance. But, again, it's clearly distracting all of these athletes.

MARTIN: Valieva competed in the team competition last week. Then it came out that she had failed this doping test, based on a sample that she gave way back in December. Brian, why was she still allowed to skate?

MANN: Well, there was this tribunal that met, that gave a decision on Monday that said she would be allowed to skate and go on. And they said it was a question of fairness. She's very young. There was this long delay in this test being produced. And they said that they just believed that she would be treated unfairly if they set her aside and sent her home.

MARTIN: Have we learned any more about why her test results weren't made public sooner?

MANN: This is the big mystery at the center of this scandal that's rocked these Winter Olympic Games. No one can say why that test went unexamined or unreported for 45 days. A lot of inquiries are underway into that. But Olympic officials here have said, bluntly and openly, they know that it delivers a black eye to these games. They know that it's a major breakdown in this doping system that was supposed to keep athletes safe. And that just hasn't happened here.

MARTIN: Brian, what's going to happen if Valieva wins?

MANN: Yeah. Well, there is going to be another night of competition, and it's very likely that she will be one of the top three, and international Olympic officials say they will not give her a medal. There will be no medals awarded if she's in that top-three position. That means these athletes will all go home without that honorable ceremony while this probe and while this investigation continues. So really, this controversy, this scandal is going to continue...


MANN: ...Long after we all go home from Beijing.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann in Beijing. Thank you.

MANN: Thank you.

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