The ISU failed Kamila Valieva. Now what?
It’s past time to reform figure skating’s governing body
TW: eating disorders, abuse
Kamila Valieva, 15, star of the current figure skating scandal, trains at a school full of teenagers. The Moscow school, Sambo-70, has churned out child champions for nearly a decade. For at least half that time, the seemingly abusive training methods of coach Eteri Tutberidze and her team have been brought to light by former and current students. Nobody did anything.
Skating fans have long been worried about the health and safety of the skaters — mostly because of reports of extremely disordered eating and harsh training of difficult jumps that have led to many injuries. Now, there’s some proof (though the Russian federation denies it) that the skaters have also been given illegal medications to improve their performances. In a Christmas-day test during Russian Nationals, Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine which increases blood flow to the heart. The medication is banned by sports doping agencies because it could increase stamina, but some experts think that it likely would do more harm that help — particularly for someone so young.
For those familiar with the sport, it is assumed that anything Valieva was taking, her other training mates were too. The nutrition of the skaters is strictly controlled. It’s also important to note that these reprehensible training methods are almost certainly not just happening at Sambo-70 or just in Russia. In every country, skating is a sport that perpetuates abuse and leaves children extremely vulnerable. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but it starts at the top. For many years, organizations from the International Skating Union (ISU) to national federations have turned a blind eye. This must change immediately.
1. Raise the minimum age
In order to compete in senior figure skating competitions, skaters must be 15 years of age. The sport governing bodies have shown themselves incapable of protecting the children in its care, so the minimum age should be immediately raised to 18. With future reforms, this could be reconsidered.
2. Suspend and investigate the Sambo-70 team
An organization independent of the International Skating Union and the Russian Federation must investigate the training methods at Valieva’s rink. In addition to doping violations they must investigate the high rate of injury and eating disorders. People found to be perpetrating this abuse against children must be permanently banned from the sport.
3. Require coaches to do media availability at all ISU competitions
Currently, the only public-facing people that journalists can ask questions of are athletes. This has left skaters like Kamila and her coach’s ice-dancer daughter to fend for themselves in interactions with media. This is unacceptable and further endangers the teenagers. The adults pulling the strings need to be questioned publicly. The ISU has to require it.
4. Stop passing the buck on athlete safety.
As the rules are currently written, the safety of athletes is not the ISU’s responsibility. The ISU says that national federations are responsible for making sure their athletes are safely prepared to compete. Those national federations often leave it up to individual training rinks.
This is unacceptable. The ISU needs to set up a center that accepts and investigates anonymous complaints. Punishments (from suspensions to bans) need to be established and meted out firmly. It also should pro-actively investigate major training centers in all nations with surprise visits.
If it cannot do this, then the ISU should be dissolved and an entirely new governing body, led by athlete advocates like former Finnish skater Kiira Koripi should be formed. Either govern the sport, or don’t.
In a few hours we will find out if Valieva is permitted to compete at in the individual event at the Olympics where she has been a gold medal-favorite. Do I think she should be suspended according to doping law? Yes. But honestly at this point I don’t much care about that. My ire is fully focused on every single adult who failed her to this point. They should all be suspended and investigated. Let her compete, or don’t. But don’t let her coaches near the board for her or any of the other kids whose bodies they’re destroying. And don’t let this be anything other than a moment to build a much safer sport.