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Russian Olympic figure skater stumbles amid doping scandal

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

Figure skating is known for its drama. Thursday night at the Winter Olympics, it was off the charts. For more than a week, scandal has surrounded 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, who tested positive for a banned drug before the games. Today that tension reached its climax with the free skate in the women's individual competition. Valieva led going in but not when the stunning night was over. From Beijing, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Long before these Winter Olympics began, those in the know in figure skating predicted a Russian sweep of the medals in the women's event. The country's three teenage skaters were that good and so far ahead of everyone with their precocious mastery of the difficult quadruple rotation jump. Even while the youngest of the three, Kamila Valieva, endured relentless controversy in Beijing created by her positive drug test, there still was the sense the trio could get it done. Tonight, with only Valieva left to skate, teammate Anna Shcherbakova led. Fellow Russian Alexandra Trusova, dubbed the quad queen, landed five of them and was in second.

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

GOLDMAN: The long and graceful Valieva began her four-minute routine to "Bolero" with the expectation she'd soar to the Gold Medal. Three quads were on her program, the first one shaky. Then came a stumble and another and then a fall. A skating disaster was unfolding. Shcherbakova watched and then described Valieva's unravelling through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNA SHCHERBAKOVA: (Through interpreter) I saw from her first jump how difficult it was, what a burden it was for her. And I understand what an athlete feels. It's more than difficult to go on to the end after a couple of things like that happen.

GOLDMAN: When Valieva got to the end, she waved her arm in disgust and then tearfully covered her face. She dropped to fourth, making Japan's Kaori Sakamoto a surprise bronze medallist. At the press conference for the top three, reporters asked about Valieva. Trusova curtly said, if you have questions for Kamila, ask her. But Valieva disappeared without comment. Trusova added to the drama by being quoted after the competition as saying, I hate everyone. I hate this sport. The 17-year-old clarified later through an interpreter, saying she thought she'd done enough to win, landing her five quads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDRA TRUSOVA: (Through interpreter) I am not happy with the result, and that's why I was angry. I was disappointed.

GOLDMAN: Shcherbakova, the surprise gold medalist, spoke about her mixed feelings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHCHERBAKOVA: (Through interpreter) I still don't comprehend what has happened. I'm just overwhelmed by my happiness on the one hand. On the other hand, I feel this emptiness inside somehow.

GOLDMAN: Which sums up pretty well what a lot of people who paid attention to this mess of a scandal felt. At the end of last night's event, there was a bit of normal. The three skaters came out for an awards ceremony, a ceremony that wouldn't have happened had Valieva been in the top three. Olympic officials said they didn't want to reward anyone until her case is heard so they wouldn't have to reshuffle the standings if she's guilty of a doping violation.

This week, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided she could compete in Beijing, it only decided that and nothing about her guilt or innocence. The court also said it didn't ban Valieva from the games because that could cause her irreparable harm. After tonight's tearful exit, one wonders whether competing at the games might have hurt Kamila Valieva even more.

Tom Goldman, NPR News, Beijing. 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.