How Eteri Tutberidze’s Skaters are Repeatedly Failed by Those Around Them

A recent doping scandal in women’s independent figure skating at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has shaken the foundation of the sport and caused outrage among athletes, coaches, and the general public. Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old skater representing the Russian Olympic Committee stands at the center of this scandal after failing an anti-doping test for taking trimetazidine, a heart medication intended to increase endurance. While it is simple to acknowledge that the ingestion of banned substances is a top tier offense in athletics, the underlying issue here stems from the fact that Valieva is an impressionable minor who was subjected to incredible amounts of pressure and responsibilities far above her age level. Standing behind this young girl is a notoriously ruthless woman named Eteri Tutberidze who is widely known for coaching her skaters into early retirement at the age of 17 to 19 at the latest.   

Tutberidze, originally from Russia, began her coaching career in America before eventually moving back to her home country and taking up a position at the Sambo-70, a widely regarded children’s and youth sports school in Moscow. It was here that Tutberidze began to turn out young skaters. 

The ROC is also represented by gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova and silver medalist Alexandra Trusova who are both 17 years old and coached by Tutberidze. Together, Tutberidze intended for Valieva, Shcherbakova, and Trusova to sweep the podium by taking a formulaic approach and crowding each girls’ performance with quadruple jumps and especially difficult moves in order to achieve inflated scores. Valieva was the first woman to successfully complete a quadruple jump at the Olympic games, and Shcherbakova and Trusova were quick to follow, with Trusova planning a record-breaking five quadruple jumps in her routine. 

However, it should be noted that quad jumps become almost impossible to perform after the age of 17 and Tutberidze’s method of rotating before performing the jump is known to cause incredibly harmful long-term back injuries. In order to have almost all her athletes perform this jump in competition, Tutberidze began to set her sights on 12 to 15-year-olds, working these children tirelessly with up to 12-hour training days with little regard to the long-term mental and physical toll of this training and the pressures of international competition. In the skating community, Tutberidze is known for her “one and done” scheme with none of her athletes earning more than one gold medal before retiring. 

Eight years ago, Yulia Lipnitskaya won a gold medal at the age of 15 in Sochi’s 2014 Winter Olympics. She performed stunningly, skating to a song from “Schindler’s List” and quickly becoming a crowd favorite. Like Valieva, she was coached by Tutberidze until she retired at the age of 19 due to her battle with anorexia that required hospitalization and three months of treatment. Tutberidze once reported to the news that Lipnitskaya was sustained by an all-powder diet, which kept her “fit” enough to perform well on the ice. Lipnitskaya later spoke out about her difficulties with the pressures of the public eye and the need to achieve perfection. Lipnitskaya’s final performance before her retirement was heartbreaking; she struggled through the larger jumps in her program and stopped mid-skate with tears in her eyes. She finished in last place. While these events took place years ago, nothing has been done to intervene and put an end to this notably discernable pattern that continues on with Valieva and her teammates. The skating community has repeatedly acknowledged Tutberidze’s harsh methods and yet no corrections have been made. In fact, Tutberidze was awarded coach of the year in 2020 by the International Skating Union (ISU) who described her as a talented coach.  

This inaction is reminiscent of what occurred with USA Gymnastics Doctor Larry Nassar who abused young gymnasts for countless years while the Federal Bureau of Investigation was aware of the situation but remained inactive for nearly a year, essentially enabling his horrible actions. All around, the system as a whole failed to protect these young girls and ensure that they were getting proper and safe treatment from those around them. Nassar was eventually sentenced to 60 years in prison, but this does not undo the pain he has inflicted on these athletes, and clearly the Olympic Committees on a national level have not learned their lesson. While the ISU and multiple antidoping agencies pushed for Valieva not to compete due to her failed doping test, there would have been no interference or red flags raised had she passed the antidoping test. 

In addition, the Court of Arbitration for Sport – an independent international body that aids in settling disputes – made the executive decision to allow Valieva to skate in the women’s free skate since disqualifying Valieva while her doping investigation remained ongoing would result in personal “irreparable harm.” Though, if the COA genuinely had Valieva’s best interest in mind they would have sent her home and provided proper resources for her to mentally and emotionally overcome the challenges she has faced and the barbed criticisms raining down on her from all angles. Furthermore, if the ISU focused on the well-being of its skaters, it would raise the minimum age and not allow children to experience the strain and pressures of the Olympics when they are not yet mentally and emotionally equipped to handle such difficult challenges. It is disheartening to see that a large scandal is required for committees to reanalyze an already flawed system and finally pay attention to the abuse occurring right under their noses rather than excusing it. 

Valieva is arguably one of the most talented female figure skaters on the ice at this year’s Winter Olympics. Her performances are breathtaking to watch and the execution of her jumps and combined artistry marked her as a future gold medalist with a promising career ahead of her. Now, due to the actions of her coach and the adults around her, her shining career may be boiled down to a performance riddled with mistakes and nowhere near indicative of her true talent. To protect young girls from experiencing the same difficulties in the future, the minimum age of the sport needs to be raised, and athletes should be looked after instead of viewed as mere tools to achieve gold medals for their country. 

Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

One thought on “How Eteri Tutberidze’s Skaters are Repeatedly Failed by Those Around Them

  1. The coach has got to go.
    I like to see Kamile move to the United States.
    I hope her physical training gains her mental capabilities, which will take her far.

    Does anybody find the clothing pro-active. The outfits seem very short.

    Richard

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