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The Beijing Winter Olympics have come to a close


The Winter Olympics wrapped up this morning with the closing ceremony in Beijing. This has been a remarkable two-plus weeks with breakout performances by athletes. It's also a Winter Games scarred by the Kamila Valieva Russian doping scandal. NPR's Brian Mann joins us now from Beijing. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Don.

GONYEA: So I understand the games ended on a high note for the U.S. What can you tell me about what happened with women's cross-country skiing?

MANN: Yeah, Don, this was just a super gutsy performance by this Vermont skier Jessie Diggins. She won silver in the 30 km skiing race, pushing herself on this bitter cold day - so hard she actually collapsed at the finish line and was down in the snow for minutes, and later revealed that she skied this grueling race after being hit by food poisoning. She is the first non-European ever to win a medal in this Olympic cross-country ski race.

GONYEA: Wow. So let's nod to one European team in particular. You've reported that Norway dominates the Winter Olympics, even though the country has a tiny population - about 5 million people. How'd they do in Beijing?

MANN: It's remarkable. You know, Norway just competes on a different level at the Winter Games. The country's sports officials predicted coming in that they would win 32 medals in Beijing, and instead they captured 37. They took twice as many gold medals as we did. They fund their sports programs aggressively, and, boy, it sure paid off in these games.

GONYEA: OK, we've talked about the celebrations. We've talked about some of the fun. Let's pivot to the darker side of these Games. The Valieva scandal raised questions about whether the International Olympic Committee is doing enough to stop doping by the Russians and enough to protect young athletes. Is there any talk of serious reform?

MANN: You know, I have to say there's some chatter, but very few people here believe fundamental change is likely. You know, this young Russian skater, Kamila Valieva, arrived in Beijing and began competing. And only then was it revealed that a doping test taken back in December returned positive. This is a huge black eye for the Olympics after years of promised protections. And then, of course, we saw this teenager fall apart on the ice with the world watching, another catastrophic moment for the Games.

And, you know, the head of the IOC, Thomas Bach, he says sports officials are going to talk about the anti-doping system, whether it can be improved. They plan a conversation about how to protect younger athletes in sports, like figure skating. And there was a moment when Bach specifically called out Valieva's coaches, and said they'd been chilling and uncaring in the moment when this teenager was so vulnerable. But then I have to say, Don, Bach's broader response sounded really bureaucratic. Despite the ugliness of what the world saw happen here, he argued that these Games are just a huge success.


THOMAS BACH: We should put into the perspective of the experience of all the other athletes this joy, this gratefulness, this satisfaction for having had these Games being organized and delivered in a safe way.

MANN: And I think, Don, a lot of critics are going to say that comment by Bach seems really out of touch with how bad this scandal was. Another thing he seems committed to is the idea that a lot of the most important decisions of the Olympic Games will keep being outsourced to other organizations - you know, anti-doping organizations that test the athletes, and also this Court of Arbitration that settles big disputes. What this arrangement means is that the IOC often doesn't appear to be in charge or accountable when scandals like this happen.

GONYEA: Before we let you go, is there any indication that the IOC might take a tougher line with Russia specifically?

MANN: I think the answer is no. Russia wields a lot of power in the Olympic Movement. They were host of the Sochi Winter Games in 2014, and they paid tens of billions of dollars to the IOC. Despite clear evidence that their sports programs have cheated and continue to cheat with these banned substances, the IOC seems committed to allowing Russian athletes to compete. And that brings us to scandals like the one involving Valieva, and it also raises questions about whether the Olympics can be clean and fair going forward.

GONYEA: That's NPR's Brian Mann, part of the NPR team covering the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Brian, thank you so much.

MANN: Thank you, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.