We Need to Talk About Figure Skating

I’ve written and re-written this piece at least a dozen times. It’s hard to put words to what I and so many others feel about figure skating at this moment. I wanted to write so many figure skating pieces for you to read on this site. I wanted to pay tribute to the greatness of Yuzuru Hanyu, the dominance of Nathan Chen in a men’s event that was filled with drama before it even began. The legendary Sui Wenjing and Han Cong deserve a post of their own for having achieved a gold medal on home ice and with it the Super Slam of figure skating. All of these and so many other accomplishments deserve to be noted and celebrated. The clear takeaway from the figure skating events of the 2022 Olympic Games however is that the sport is fundamentally broken. We need to talk about why. 

Some Background:

Many comprehensive timelines have been written about the events that unfolded that revealed Russian skater Kamila Valieva had tested positive for a banned substance, trimetazidine, in the lead up to the 2022 Olympics. Here is a brief recap to refresh our memories:

  • The medal ceremony for the Team event was originally scheduled for February 08, 2022, but was delayed. International Olympic Committee (IOC) spokesperson Mark Adams described an ongoing situation that required further consultation with the International Skating Union (ISU). No further details were provided at this time.
  • On February 11, 2022, the IOC officially confirmed that Kamila Valieva of Russia had tested positive for the presence of trimetazidine. The sample in question was taken at the 2022 Russian Figure Skating Championships on December 25 2021 by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA). The sample was not tested by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) until February 8 2022, one day after the conclusion of the Olympic Team Event. 
  • Valieva received a provisional suspension after this result was confirmed, however this decision was appealed. She was cleared by RUSADA’s Disciplinary Anti-Doping Committee (DAC) on February 9 2022, and the provisional suspension was lifted only one day after it was initially received. 
  • The IOC, the ISU and WADA appealed the removal of the suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). CAS heard the case on February 13 2022, and the removal of Valieva’s provisional suspension was upheld on February 14 2022, ahead of her appearance in the women’s singles event which began February 15 2022. 
  • The IOC announced that the team event medal ceremony, as well as the women’s singles flower ceremony and medal ceremony if Valieva were to medal, would not take place until the investigation is over, and there is a concrete decision whether to strip Valieva and the ROC of their medals.
  • The IOC announced that the team event medal ceremony, as well as the women’s singles flower ceremony and medal ceremony would not take place if Valieva were to medal in consideration of the ongoing investigation, and in consideration that a concrete decision whether to strip Valieva and the ROC of their medals was pending.
  • To allow for the fact that Valieva might finish in the top 24 skaters who would qualify, the IOC asked the ISU to add a 25th spot in the women’s event and have an additional competitior qualify for the free skate. 
  • After the women’s short program, on February 15 2022, it was reported by the New York Times that Valieva’s sample tested positive for two additional heart medications, hypoxen and L-Carnitine, neither of which are on the banned list. For context, Travis Tygart, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, stated that “trifecta of substances…[which] seem to be aimed at increasing endurance, reducing fatigue and promoting greater efficiency in using oxygen”.
  • Valieva finished the short program in first. After struggling with jumps and other program elements in the free skate, she finished in fifth place overall at the end of the women’s singles event.

Looking at the Impact:

Since the discussion is surrounding a literal child, I will only say that it’s clear that Valieva was failed by every single adult around her, by adults and institutions that were meant to protect her. From being sent out alone in front of reporters, to being admonished for not continuing to fight through her free program, it’s more than clear that the system failed. Amidst the discussion of whether or not she should even have been allowed to compete, it’s important to remember that as a child, she likely had little to no say in taking any drugs.

Valieva’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, has long been known to use abusive tactics in her skating school. Previous students have retired at incredibly early ages with a myriad of health problems directly related to their time as athletes. Stories of skaters being weighed constantly, having food restricted, and only being allowed to swish water in their mouths rather than drink during competitions are common, and easy enough to find. One skater reportedly had to continue training after sustaining a broken hand. Tutberidze was once quoted as saying the best parent to work with is one that she doesn’t know. With all of these stories combined, it’s a stark reminder that this is the woman who is currently the ISU’s Coach of the Year. 

It must be said that this situation that unfolded during the 2022 Olympic Games is neither new nor particularly surprising. That Russia has engaged in doping of their athletes is hardly news. For further reading on the background of training practices that originated in the former Soviet Union, I recommend reading “The Big Red Machine: The Rise and Fall of Soviet Olympic Champions” by Yuri Brokhin. Additionally, Icarus, the Oscar-winning documentary film by Bryan Fogal is a fantastic breakdown of the systematic nature of doping in Russia in particular. Every Olympic cycle it seems, Russia is never lacking for teenagers doing physics-defying tricks but who are never seen again on the competitive circuit after winning all of figure skating’s top prizes. It should raise questions of the factory-style nature in which Russia seems to produce these athletes to compete at the sport’s highest level.

Where Do We Go From Here:

The best thing that the figure skating community can hope for in light of these events is a real opportunity to look inward, and have a moment of reckoning in our sport. One place to start would be considering raising the age limit for senior competitors. The bodies of little girls continue to be abused in pursuit of Olympic glory to the cheers of adoring crowds. Compelling coaches to allow athletes to go through natural bodily transitions like puberty can only help set athletes up for success while ensuring that they’ve had the proper development along the way.

The wildly inconsistent doping punishments also need to be addressed. The fact that Valieva was allowed to compete because she is considered a “protected person” only encourages coaches and others responsible for athlete welfare to dope athletes younger and younger since they themselves will face little if any consequences. The lack of consistency results in consequences for athletes who take clean sport seriously. Why should they bother putting in the effort to compete at their very best while clean, if they know other competitors are not.

Finally, the current “ban” against Russia, where athletes are still able to compete but they cannot be underneath their home flag nor hear their national anthem during medal ceremonies clearly isn’t working. Actually banning Russian athletes, since the issues are so clearly systemic, may be worth a try. If a country can’t agree to abide by established anti-doping norms, then their athletes shouldn’t be allowed to compete on sports’ largest stages.

The entire situation surrounding figure skating at the 2022 Olympics was heartbreaking. As a figure skater myself and as an avid fan, it’s hard to maintain hope that the sport is fixable when the exploitation of little girls in particular is clearly so deeply engrained. This situation is so much larger than a Russian teenager, her coach, or even Russia itself. It’s time we asked ourselves what the price of success is, and how we can ensure all who participate in our sport are healthy and able to maintain their humanity while achieving the super-human.  Maybe when we find our answers, I can go back to bringing you stories of Keegan Messing’s epic journey to the Games, the Israeli pairs team breaking barriers, and why Kaori Sakamoto and Wakaba Higuchi are perfection personified. Until then, it’s important to recognize how deep the rot is and make an informed choice when watching our beautiful sport.

Leave a Reply