#OPINION | Women’s Figure Skating: The Blood-stained Sport

By Gianni Tabaloc and Clareese Jamisola

Cover Art by Sarah Aquino

It’s October 2021. Alina Zagitova, the 2018 Olympic champion in women’s single figure skating, has stopped competing; and so has Evgenia Medvedeva, who had won silver at the same Olympic Games. Meanwhile, Alena Kostornaia once thought to be the next Olympic favorite, is struggling to remain competitive due to sustained injuries.

Their quick rise to stardom and even quicker fall can be attributed to the coach they all share: Eteri Tutberidze.

Meanwhile, Kamila Valieva, another “Eteri girl,” is about to make her debut on the senior international circuit. Like those who came before her, she’d eventually go down as both a champion and a record-breaker.

Despite being only 15 years of age, she would soon be put under the spotlight once more on the sport’s biggest stage. All eyes would be on her after a scrutinous decision was made that would allow her to skate even after testing positive on a drug test.

The secret was out: figure skating’s devil-in-disguise was knocked off her perch and exposed to the world. Tutberidze’s methods are harsh, almost torture-esque, destroying and molding young girls at will — all for the sake of medals. No amount of success should be worth the lives and careers of athletes, and yet her system has been allowed to continuously thrive in this poisoned sport.

Tutberidze must be stopped before the point of no return.

The weight of empty medals

It was only a matter of time before the immeasurable expectations on a young girl’s shoulders came crashing down. After a less than stellar free program, Tutberidze was heard reprimanding Valieva: “Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?”

On that same night, Anna Shcherbakova, an Eteri girl and the newest Olympic champion, said she felt empty. Her training mate Alexandra Trusova suffered a meltdown and refused to join her on the podium. What was supposed to be a night of celebration instead became a night of mourning — for integrity, clean sport, and the death of women’s figure skating.

It was clear to see: the sport known for its beauty and grace had devolved into an ugly avalanche of impossible expectations piled onto these girls. The constant implanting of thoughts in athletes’ minds — that it was either gold or failure — created the toxic environment that allowed the venomous Tutberidze to prosper.

Girls lose more than blood, sweat, and tears as they try to satisfy Tutberidze’s suffocating standards, resulting in the emptiest of highs and the lowest of lows.

Beginning of a new era

This scandal did not just rear its ugly head out of nowhere. In less than a decade, Tutberidze’s seemingly miraculous coaching methods led her to undeniably become the most dominant force in women’s figure skating worldwide.

Prior to the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, it was not uncommon for ladies’ figure skaters to have careers that spanned multiple Olympics, with Yuna Kim and Mao Asada’s famous decade-long rivalry and Italian skater Carolina Kostner retiring at the age of 31 being testaments to that.

Despite this, most skaters above the age of 21 today can no longer be major contenders. Not because they are not good, but because they are already considered too old. In a mere eight years, we have seen the women’s discipline transition to a sport that no longer accommodates grown women.

Out of all the women’s single skaters who competed at this year’s Games, only six are returning Olympians, none of whom were medallists. More than 50% of the participants were below the age of 20. This is in stark contrast to the men’s discipline, which boasted a total of 15 returning Olympians, one of whom is a double Olympic champion and another a silver medallist. Three skaters were above the age of 30, and no skaters were below the age of 18.

Clearly, age limits should be raised. If the exploitation of minors and their prepubescent bodies that Tutberidze holds sacred is the catalyst for this broken system, then minors shouldn’t be allowed to compete at all.

Yet the system still operates on the rampant exploitation of children — children whom coaches and federations alike consider as disposable, as if they were slabs of meat rather than people.

Quad revolution

The main foundation of these girls’ dominance and Tutberidze’s justification for utilizing children athletes is the fabled quadruple jump. In fact, the first-ever ladies quad in the Olympics was performed in this year’s event by Valieva, with the other Eteri girls following suit.

Ever since Midori Ito became the first woman to land the most difficult triple jump, the triple axel, in 1988, the technical elements in women’s figure skating became stagnant.

That was until the first-ever ladies quad performed in any competition was landed in 2002 — a monumental feat that no one accomplished again until 2018. Yet from 2018 to 2022, a following 17 more ladies completed quad jumps; a big majority of these quads have been completed by those under Tutberidze, including children as young as 11 years old.

The quad quickly became a staple among Tutberidze’s students and is now virtually a requirement to win at competitions. This places pressure on coaches and skaters from different federations to also train for these incredibly difficult and physically taxing jumps, but no one could find the formula for success that had seemingly been mastered by Tutberidze.

However, it was too good to be true because the higher Tutberidze pushed these girls to fly, the faster they burned out.

The Eteri cycle

In this new era, where quads are revolutionizing women’s discipline, longevity is seemingly impossible. It is no secret that Tutberidze’s champions are not meant to last. Instead, they are trained to burn bright and early, peak at the biggest stage the world has to offer, and retire prematurely.

Sambo 70 in Moscow, where she is the head coach, is no less a training club than it is a factory for producing jumping dolls with a tangible expiration date. “There is nothing left to do except to work with the material that exists and try to create our own product,” said Tutberidze in an interview from 2017.

In 2014, 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya was the “product” that everyone had their eyes on. At the Sochi Olympics, fans and casual watchers alike couldn’t get enough of “the girl in the red coat.” But sooner rather than later, she began to lose consistency and was quickly discarded by her training camp when she no longer churned out medals. After many struggles with injury and disillusionment, she retired in 2017.

The downward trajectory of Lipnitskaya’s career later proved to be a pattern for the Eteri girls, with the trend being ruthlessly labeled the “Eteri expiration date.”

The mere fact that her people are being defined with expiration dates should make it clear that Tutberidze is a megalomaniac who disregards the lives of the athletes she works with. She curses them with an inescapable cycle, doomed to live their sporting life on a time limit, all to satisfy her cravings for power and success.

The inevitable ‘expiration’

In 2018, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova and 19-year-old Evgenia Medvedva’s rivalry shook the stage and dazzled the crowd at the Pyeongchang Olympics, as they won gold and silver respectively. As intense and dramatic as it was, theirs was a rivalry short-lived as both unofficially retired soon after.

At the time of Zagitova’s retirement came the rise of three of the brightest stars witnessed in women’s figure skating in the past four years: Aliona Kostornaia, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Shcherbakova. They were young, exciting, and perhaps most important of all, they could jump more than any Russian girls ever had before.

They would become colloquially known as the “3A” which alludes to both their first names and the difficult triple axel jump. All sagas have their ups and downs, however, as all three girls faced inconsistency and constant injury.

Despite being predicted as the new Olympic favorite, Kostornaia has been struggling with competition more than ever in recent times. Her loss of the triple axel due to injury had seemingly been the final blow for Tutberidze and her camp, and she soon found herself being “replaced” with a new Eteri girl who could jump quads: Kamila Valieva.

By the end of 2021, Valieva had rapidly skated her way to the top, making her way onto the Olympic team with Shcherbakova and Trusova in her first season as a senior. All eyes were on them from the beginning till the end, even if it was clear that sooner or later, those same eyes would leave as quick as they came.

This merry-go-round of superstars appearing every couple of years should have been a telltale sign that Tutberidze treated children as livestock. She has branded her own cycle of abuse, having no remorse over the lives she’s shattered and the bodies she’s broken. The success she’s won masked the hideous systems and exploits underneath it.

Training or abuse?

The perpetrators of these early retirements and deterioration of all the young girls’ bodies were undoubtedly the methods of Tutberidze. Some of the harshest methods dealt with weight, which she maintained an extremely strict control and obsession over. Water was banned before events to prevent the additional weight gain. She held the belief that weight was inversely proportional to jumping ability; thus, Eteri girls, unsurprisingly, were commonly found possessing eating disorders.

Toxic mindsets of unnecessary competition between teammates prevail throughout the Tutberidze camp, ruining relationships between athletes with each other and with the sport: a prime example being when the silver medallist at the recent Olympic games, Trusova, broke down after the scores were announced. She believed she deserved to win over her countrymate, Shcherbakova, stating she “hated” it and that she will “never skate again.” Although heartbreaking, Tutberidze could not seem to care.

Pre-pubescence was another concept she stood by, as signs of puberty, such as added height or weight, meant the start of the rapid decline for her. Lupron, a drug that blocked puberty, was frequently prescribed to her skaters. In fact, the use of chemical substances and artificial help by Tutberidze for her athletes has been receiving more visibility lately after the recent doping scandal. Valieva testing positive for three heart medications (Trimetazidine, Hypoxen, and L-carnitine) was the catalyst for all the controversy to follow in the recent Olympic games.

These inhumane methods should not be seen as anything but maltreatment; Tutberidze should not be considered a coach but rather, an abuser.

These abuses have created rifts in the camaraderie of her athletes, breaking them down not only as individuals but also as a team. The recent drug exploits also bring into question whether these methods are even possible in the realm of human limits; or has she desecrated legitimacy, competition, and everything sport stands for?

Scandals and complicity

The very thought that these cruel practices are allowed to thrive and shape the very foundation of this sport is haunting; but what else can be expected from a complicit governing body feeding on this success?

The International Skating Union (ISU) governs the international figure skating scene for all disciplines yet displays almost no regard to the numerous scandals and controversies that come Tutberidze’s way.

They seem to give propped-up scores to “Eteri girls” despite improper technique, fostering the dangerous quad revolution with emphasis on such taxing elements, as well as openly giving Tutberidze the platform that she thrives on. They even gave the Best Coach award to Tutberidze during the inaugural ISU awards ceremony for the 2019–2020 season — a go-signal for her to continue her terror reign and a slap in the face to all the “expired” children thrown by the wayside.

Most damning of all, they are complicit in their silence. They prevent other young girls from speaking up about the issue by threatening them with lowered scores. But through the blanket of eerie silence, whispers and voices will slowly seep through; until screams of the broken and abused break free. Pandora’s box has now been opened, and the spotlight shines on Tutberidze more than ever.

What is the point of success?

What is the point of evolution if it takes more than blood, sweat, and tears to reach it? What is the point of success when there’s nothing but emptiness once the deed is done?

The recent years of women’s figure skating have hurt not only the young, pre-pubescent girls who have shamelessly been used, abused, and disposed of to power the quad revolution, but also actual adult skaters who have been injuring themselves trying to keep up to the unfair and unrealistic standards. Surely, the not-so-mythical-anymore quad jumps and uncountable gold medals aren’t worth all the suffering, disappointment, and mental anguish that these unbelievably young girls go through.

More people need to speak about this, involved in figure skating or not; this toxic and dangerous mindset threatens to leak over and plague other sports and professions. Fans, officials, athletes, coaches, staff, and critics alike must see the writing on the wall and speak it. Tutberidze must be stopped. The ISU must be scrutinized and reformed, while athletes should be better protected.

The integrity of the sport should be protected. The spirit of the competition should be protected. And most importantly, these girls should be protected, for a system is no good when it emotionally and physically breaks their athletes, especially those who are of a very young age.

Medals are no good if they are won in a blood-stained sport.

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The Science Scholar

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