Monday, March 4, 2024

COLUMN: The culture of Russian figure skating tells a story of deep-rooted toxicity

February 22, 2022
<p>Russian women&#x27;s figure skating training breaks down their mental state. </p>

Russian women's figure skating training breaks down their mental state.

Photo by Madison Echlin | The State News

When the music cut out at the end of Kamila Valieva’s free skate routine on Thursday night, the spectacle was just beginning. NBC’s coverage extended beyond the competition, catching the stunned, livid and numb reactions to the medal placements by the audience and participants alike. 

Winning the gold was 17-year-old Anna Shcherbakova, the reigning world champion, followed by fellow Russian Alexandra Trusova. In a shocking third place was Japanese skater Kaori Sakamoto, filling the slot many assumed would fall to a Russian Olympic Committee, or ROC, skater. Valieva came up in a devastating fourth place after weeks of anticipation as the favorite for the women’s event. 

When the scores were tallied and the medals assigned, the only skater appearing happy about the outcome was Sakamoto — as Valieva sobbed in the kiss and cry area with Head Coach Eteri Tutberidze and Trusova spat complaints about how everyone had a gold medal but her. The Olympic champion Shcherbakova, who would later say she felt “empty,” sat alone with a solemn demeanor in the medalists’ area. The placements of first, second and fourth would be considered a historic achievement for most other nations present at the Olympics, but the energy of the Russian delegation was subdued and weighed down by Valieva’s failure to medal and the cloud of doubt surrounding her doping scandal. 

Maybe one of the most jarring aspects of the women’s free skate aftermath is that it’s exactly what many would expect from the women of the ROC. Perfection is a standard for these skaters, who consistently throw the most difficult jumps in the sport with dizzying ease. Stepping off the ice with four falls, as was Valieva’s case, is nearly unheard of in Russian skating. 

The subsequent tears seemed to be a reflection of a career’s worth of pressure that’s been placed on Valieva at only 15 years old. Commentators Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir noted that Valieva is a textbook perfectionist, often critiquing herself more harshly than her coaches. However, this mindset is a hallmark of Russian women’s figure skating, and is indicative of a much larger culture of toxicity and manipulation. 

For years, Russian women have dominated the complimentary sports of ice skating and gymnastics, two competitions in which the smallest, youngest athletes are able to complete the most high-level moves. The ROC routinely has the youngest skaters and gymnasts in each Olympic Games, with skaters between the ages of 14 and 17 and gymnasts typically no older than 18 years old. Russian figure skating in particular depends on a system of training in which younger and smaller is championship material — but only on the women’s side of the sport.

To understand the drastic difference in age between men’s and women’s skating competitors, we have to look at the newest big thing in skating: the quad jumps. With four full revolutions in less than a second as the skater is suspended in midair, quad jumps were considered firmly a men’s-only move just four years ago in PyeongChang. This year, all three Russian women entered the Olympics with a quad in their arsenal of technical skills, making them nearly impossible to beat. 

In the physics of men’s skating, it serves the athlete to be mature and well into their twenties to pull off quad jumps and the stamina required. In the women’s event, older skaters can be seriously injured by attempting quads — many don’t even venture into the realm of triple jumps. 

Russian skating has a practice of cycling through the youngest and smallest women in order to always have a team capable of the hardest jumps. 

In studying the ROC’s last several Olympic teams, there’s higher turnover of female skaters than in nearly every other country — Russian women simply do not compete in more than one consecutive Olympics. By the time a female skater has completed her first Olympic Games for Russia, a newer, smaller, younger skater will have risen to take her place in the next round. By the time a skater turns 18, her career is widely considered to be over. 

So, what is it about Russian women’s figure skating that makes these athletes so uniquely successful, yet so psychologically wrought? The answer lies in a tradition of training young women — children, really — in a manner that breaks down mental well-being in order to build the ultimate athlete. And this doesn’t exist in the same way with the men’s side of the sport — Russian men aren’t bad at figure skating, but they aren’t topping each medal count the way their female counterparts are. 

It’s not difficult to realize that the key to success in figure skating in Russia is the manipulation and abuse of young women. Kamila Valieva is a textbook case — beginning skating from a young age, she felt down about her presence in the sport around 12 years old. That feeling of being done coincided with Valieva being picked up to train with Eteri Tutberidze, whose coaching methods are known globally for being grueling but effective in making young women world champions. In an interview last year, Valieva said that she was an ideal match for her coach because Tutberidze “loves skaters who are close to despair.” When Valieva stepped off the ice on Thursday, her coach could be heard scolding “why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting?” as the skater sobbed. 

Valieva, though a well-established winner, is still very much a child — albeit a child who’s been featured in Russian Vogue — and spectators of the Olympics have pointed out that nearly every adult in her life has failed to keep her safe and mentally sound. These aren’t just a sequence of unlucky mistakes. There is an institutional effort in Russian women’s figure skating to put the medals first and the athletes second (or third, or fourth). 

All of this isn’t to say that Russia is the only country in the world that promotes a culture of toxicity in women’s figure skating — the practice of technical scoring means that skaters will always push the boundaries of physics for new jumps. The difference between Russia and the rest of the world is that in 2022, most skating federations have modified their approach to women’s training to allow more mentally and physically mature women to have more longevity in the sport. Russia has not — in fact, it’s leaned into the numerical scoring system that assigns most value to jumps that can only be completed by the youngest competitors. 

Retirement at age 17 seems absurd to most people in the world, but Russian women in figure skating don’t typically have a shelf life of much longer than that. Riddled with injuries, mental health struggles and eating disorders, skaters have been leaving the sport just as quickly as they can be replaced with newer, younger girls. 

Just four years ago in 2018, Evgenia Medvedeva was one of the biggest names in figure skating just before turning 18. After a silver-medal finish at the PyeongChang Olympics, her career never reached the same height and she was cycled out of the sport due to chronic back issues. Her retirement directly coincided with the rise of this year’s Russian trio of Valieva, Trusova and Shcherbakova. It’s the brutal life cycle of Russian skating — there is always someone newer, younger, more capable of landing harder and harder jumps. It’s unlikely that the girls who skated for the ROC in the 2022 games will be back in 2026. 

After seeing the chain of events leading up to the women’s free skate this week, it became clear to many in the figure skating world that these practices of pushing women to the brink of collapse for a win isn’t sustainable, prompting calls for modifications to the scoring system as well as the regulation of coaches like Tutberidze. It remains to be seen how the events of Valieva’s doping investigation will unfold, but it will likely trace harmful behavior through all levels of the Russian skating community. 

In a sport where athletes can become overnight celebrities, the eyes of the world will be trained on Russia going forward. One way or another, there will come a breaking point where the people behind Russia’s figure skating success will have to reckon with the irreparable harm they’ve caused to so many children and young women — we can only hope that moment will be sooner rather than later.

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