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Olympic figure skating faces a series of controversies. What is its future?


This week's women's figure skating competition was tainted from the start when the results from weeks-old drug test for Kamila Valieva came back positive. But when the 15-year-old skater stumbled four times in her routine and broke down in tears, her coach chastised her for her performance. How did one of the Winter Olympics' most popular events become such a scandalous and sad drama? Polina Edmunds competed in the same event at the 2014 Games. She is also host of the "Bleav In Figure Skating" podcast. Polina Edmunds joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

POLINA EDMUNDS: Of course. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What was your reaction when you - well, when you saw this gifted 15-year-old performer stumble and then get criticized publicly by her coach of all people?

EDMUNDS: You know, I think the worst part about this entire fiasco at the Olympics is that all of the finger-pointing and all of the media attention has been pointed at this 15-year-old athlete. And she should not be at the center of this media circus. It should be her coaching team. And it's her coaching team's face that should be plastered in every news article and all over every social media page. It is not this 15-year-old athlete.

SIMON: There are so many questions that that invites, and let me begin with the one you just raised. Should there be an age limit so that we don't have 15-year-olds?

EDMUNDS: I think the biggest issue here is really the judging system, not so much age. And in the last four to five years, the judging system has really been catering to young athletes that are minors before puberty who are able to accomplish the technical that skaters after puberty just can't do. And this wasn't the case before. I myself was 15 years old at the Olympics eight years ago with the highest technical difficulty at that time. And I still placed ninth because they were looking for full-package skating, the maturity of the artistry that you could bring as a woman, not a child. And that's completely flipped.

SIMON: How do you change the scoring system so that it doesn't emphasize technical feats like quadruple jumps?

EDMUNDS: Well, to start, the judging needs to be honest in terms of the artistic score, which is the second half of scoring in figure skating. So if a teenage girl is landing a quad or two or three in her free skate, she's getting 10s for components for the artistry when, in reality, there's nothing there. These skaters do not have intricate choreography. They are not connecting with the music or showing any type of emotion while they skate. It is just a jumping competition. And because the judging system has allowed for medals to be won with that as the priority, these 15-year-olds are getting all the medals...

SIMON: Yeah.

EDMUNDS: ...These minors. And it's not the minors' fault. They are just following the system that the judging has laid out.

SIMON: Is it going to be hard for the sport to pick up and go on?

EDMUNDS: I think that there's been a lot of damage done at this Olympics not only for this Russian skater but also for all the athletes involved who are clean and were still asked to compete against her. Suspension should have happened immediately with no questions asked. A failed test is a failed test regardless of circumstances. But I hope that skaters can still be positive and be voices for change and encourage young athletes to not view this as discouragement but instead...

SIMON: Yeah.

EDMUNDS: ...Something that we can fix. And we need more young people to start fixing it.

SIMON: What would you, if you had the chance, tell Kamila Valieva?

EDMUNDS: If I had the chance to talk to her, I would probably just give her a hug and tell her to go rest and go be surrounded by family and adults who really, really care for her and her as a human, not just as a student and an athlete and a vessel for medals. And I would tell her that she needs to get some serious help. She needs to be in therapy for sure after these games because to put even an adult athlete in this situation with this much negative attention is one thing. But to be only 15 years old where your mind is still developing - your body is still developing - this is truly horrifying. And she needs to be given the right tools to heal in a healthy way.

SIMON: Polina Edmunds, ice skater who competed at the 2014 Winter Olympics and now hosts the "Bleav In Figure Skating" podcast, thanks so much for being with us.

EDMUNDS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.