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Valieva takes No. 1 slot in a figure skating event that's clouded by doping saga

Kamila Valieva of Team ROC skates during the women's short program at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 15, 2022 in Beijing, China.
Justin Setterfield
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Getty Images
Kamila Valieva of Team ROC skates during the women's short program at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 15, 2022 in Beijing, China.

Updated February 15, 2022 at 10:47 AM ET

BEIJING — The 30 skaters taking the ice for the women's Olympic figure skating short program Tuesday were competing under a cloud, because of one person's presence: Russian star Kamila Valieva.

The 15-year-old's positive test for a banned drug before the Olympics has thrown these Games into disarray.

After days of scrutiny and intense pressure because of the revelations, the teenager executed a first-place performance. Valieva scored 82.16, despite a stumble on her first triple axel — the hardest triple-rotation jump.

Valieva appeared to be overcome with emotion as the audience gave her the longest applause of the night at the end of her routine.

Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, also of the Russian Olympic Committee, took second and fourth place, respectively. Their performances give the ROC a solid chance at a podium finish later this week.

The night's final skater, Japan's Kaori Sakamoto, edged her way into third place.

The stadium was roughly half full Tuesday night, with some local Chinese spectators in the stands. But most people in the seats were media and small (but mighty) contingents from the athlete's country.

A robust group of German teammates and officials cheered on skater Nicole Schott with a large inflated pretzel. Schott, who landed in 14th place at the end of the night, cemented her place in the next round. It's unclear whether the pretzel balloon might have buoyed her efforts.

U.S. skaters Alysa Liu, Mariah Bell, and Karen Chen, finished eighth, 11th, and 13th, respectively. The final phase in the women's singles competition is Thursday's free skate.

Skaters performed after days of distractions

The competition was shrouded in controversy after news that Valieva tested positive for a heart drug called trimetazidine. The drug can boost athletes' endurance and blood efficiency. She provided a sample last December but the positive result wasn't revealed until last week - after she helped propel the Russian team to a gold medal in the team competition.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Monday that Valieva should be allowed to keep competing at the Olympics. "Preventing the athlete to compete at the Olympic Games would cause her irreparable harm in these circumstances," said CAS director general Matthieu Reeb at a press conference, noting that her young age made the case particularly sensitive. Under the World Anti-Doping Code, she is considered a "protected person."

Most other skaters declined to talk much about Valieva after their performances.

"It's not easy being here," said the U.S.'s Bell, 25, describing the pressure of the Winter Games. She also voiced concern for Valieva: "It's a tough situation for everyone. She's young."

USA's Mariah Bell competes in the women's single skating short program during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
USA's Mariah Bell competes in the women's single skating short program during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.

In the lead-up to the event, many skaters said they avoided social media and the news of Valieva, and focused on their own work as much as they could.

Olga Mikutina of Austria said, "I concentrated on myself and it didn't matter what was going on around me." Mikutina placed 18th.

Some athletes said they arrived wanting to have fun and hoped to ignore the firestorm.

"It's one time in four years, for me it was my first time," said Lindsay van Zundert of the Netherlands who was laughing and joking with reporters after her performance.

She said, "I just wanted to enjoy it and give it everything I had. It's just me, my skates and my program and nothing else." She ended the night in 22nd place.

Some skaters question allowing Valieva to skate

The Valieva controversy has reshaped the women's figure skating competition.

The best 25 skaters after the short program will advance to Thursday's free skate. Traditionally the qualification rule of the short program means that only the best 24 skaters move on. The extra skater was added to Thursday's free skate lineup so that enough people can compete and get a fair shot, if Valieva is later disqualified.

Belarus' Viktoriia Safonova competes in the women's single skating short program on Febr. 15, 2022.
MANAN VATSYAYANA / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Belarus' Viktoriia Safonova competes in the women's single skating short program on Febr. 15, 2022.

"It was the right decision, I think, because if anything does come up, then that person has their place to skate," British skater Natasha McKay said of the IOC's decision to expand the number of qualifiers. McKay was speaking to reporters after her event.

She said broadly of the Valieva case, "I wish it would be [a] level playing field, but it's not. But they've [CAS and the IOC] made the decision that they've made and I can't do anything about it."

Asked whether Valieva should've been skating in this event, Mikutina of Austria said that decision must be made by other people. "Of course it's important for every athlete to compete against each other clean," she said.

NPR's Russell Lewis contributed to this story.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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.