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Turning ladies’ Figure Skating into another sport: Eteri Tutberidze and the future of Figure Skating

CW: Eating Disorders

“It’s amazing what they’re doing there!” declared commentator Chris Howarth during the 2019 Grand Prix Final. “Turning ladies’ figure skating into another sport.” 

He was referring to four of the competing women – or, more accurately, girls, not one over the age of seventeen – and their coaching team, all hailing from Russia. Known colloquially as ‘Team Tutberidze’ after their famed figurehead of a coach, the group had dominated the women’s discipline for years. At the time, Howarth’s praise was almost the default, one of many voices lauding the group at every opportunity. But less than three years later, attitudes would sour drastically as this same team became embroiled in the biggest doping scandal the sport has ever seen.

The news of fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva’s failed drug test arrived midway through the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, throwing the event into chaos. Yet on the 17th February, she still stepped onto the ice, to perform a skate that only days ago the world had expected would make her Olympic Champion.

It was not to be. Valieva sobbed after a mistake-riddled performance, her pink rabbit plush tissue box huddled in her lap. Her coaches had their arms around her, but coach Tutberidze’s stinging words from only moments ago still hung in the air. 

“Why did you stop fighting?” she demanded within seconds of her student stepping off the ice. The President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, called her attitude “chilling.” 

The investigation into the case is yet to conclude publicly; officially, the blame is yet to be laid. But for many in the figure skating world, this was the long-anticipated lightning strike after years of rolling thunder. 

For anyone who has paid any recent attention to figure skating, Eteri Tutberidze will have been a difficult figure to remain ignorant of, or indifferent to. Once a skater of no particular note, Tutberidze’s rise to prominence as one of the most successful coaches of the last few decades can be tracked through the brief, bright careers of her students: the ‘Eteri girls’, all prodigal teenagers with astounding athletic ability. 

First there was 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya, the star of the 2014 Olympic Team Event. With her stunning flexibility and jumping skill to match that of women years her senior, she became one of the youngest Olympic Gold Medallists in figure skating history with the rest of Team Russia. But Lipnitskaya faltered quickly, and by next season, she was struggling to medal at any international events. She retired officially at the age of 19, due to various leg and hip injuries, and it was later revealed she had at one point been in treatment for anorexia. (Tutberidze had previously commented to the media on how easily she gained weight.) 

But this was of no concern to Tutberidze; she had found a new star in Evgenia Medvedeva. Praised for her stunning consistency, Medvedeva was twice World and European Champion, with countless other international victories between 2015 and 2017. But as the 2018 Olympics loomed, the then seventeen-year-old Medvedeva began to struggle with injury. Her dream of Olympic Gold was eclipsed by her younger teammate, also coached by Tutberidze; fifteen-year-old Alina Zagitova won Olympic Gold. Although Medvedeva initially declared determination for redemption in 2022, she eventually retired from competition at 21, her back damaged to the point where she can no longer twist to perform certain jumps. 

Zagitova won the 2019 World Championships, but the rise of three more Tutberidze girls into the senior ranks meant it became her turn to be overtaken. She finished sixth of six at the 2019 Grand Prix Final and announced she would take a break from competition. She has not returned. 

The arrival of the ‘Triple A’: Aliona Kostornaia, Anna Shcherbakova, and Alexandra ‘Sasha’ Trusova, was yet another game-changer. All were capable of at least one ‘ultra-c’ jumping element; jumps rarely performed by women that even men struggle with. Kostornaia had a triple axel, and Shcherbakova and Trusova could jump four rotations, something almost unheard of in women before them. The trio’s rivalry was considerable, and they swept podiums completely throughout 2019-20. COVID-19 curbed some of their momentum; Shcherbakova triumphed in 2021, Trusova just behind her, but Kostornaia has bounced between different coaching teams, struggled with COVID and various injuries, and recently underwent knee surgery. She still skates, but her competitive future is uncertain. 

Again, no matter. Tutberidze had Kamila Valieva waiting in the wings. Already a junior phenom, Valieva entered her very first international senior season in 2021 as the pinnacle of all that made these girls so successful. She could jump both quadruples and triple axels. Her flexibility and spins were stunning. The Olympic Gold seemed guaranteed.

An inevitable question is how Tutberidze and her team coach these girls to glory. Figure skating scoring is a whole different controversy in and of itself, but Team Tutberidze’s utilisation of it is fairly simple; find the easiest ways to add on inarguable points, and the rest will follow. If the Tutberidze girls can jump with more rotations than anyone else, every program they skate is points higher, before half the marks have even touched the scoresheet. As for how they can jump like this, they learn younger than most, using arguably incorrect but easier technique while their bodies are still small and light and can rotate faster. Then the team hastily accounts for the presentation score, by creating programs with recognisable characters and music and bold costumes, to compensate for the fact that these girls will inevitably lack nuance in their expression that their older competitors have developed with time. Schindler’s List, Black Swan, Anna Karenina, The Master and Margarita. Trusova was the defiant Cruella de Vil, Valieva the girl chasing a butterfly. The girls don’t have to be the best performers, or the most skilled in their actual base of skating. All they have to do is land their jumps and hope their bodies can sustain it until the next big championship. For years, many fans and some commentators voiced scepticism towards the scores received by Tutberidze’s camp – what were these high scores really endorsing? But nothing has ever changed. By February 2022, Valieva held all three possible scoring world records.

Unsurprisingly, Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova, and Kamila Valieva were the three chosen to compete at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. Valieva was the only one selected to participate in the Team Event; she won both of the segments she competed in by significant amounts, and was key to Russia’s victory. But just hours before the intended medal ceremony, the news came that it had been postponed. Other developments emerged: that there was a legal issue involving the Russian team. That someone had tested positive for a banned substance. That it was Valieva. Although administered in December, the sample analysis had been delayed by COVID complications, and now it arrived 4 days before she was due to compete for the individual title. 

As the dust settled, the surprise faded somewhat. Valieva’s team claimed her grandfather took the drug in question, trimetazidine, and she had shared a glass of water with him. Accidental contamination, they insisted. But trimetazidine is used to treat heart conditions, and it allows for increased blood flow and more efficient oxygen use. Suddenly, the incredible stamina the girls were famous for was under microscopic attention. It was noted that Team Tutberidze’s doctor, Filipp Shvetsky, had previously been suspended for doping violations. A controversial instance from the year prior where an unwell Shcherbakova seemed to be given some sort of smelling salt before a skate resurfaced. 

There was fierce debate over if Valieva should be allowed to compete, but the complexities of her case as an underage ‘protected person’ and the lateness of the sample meant the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled in her favour– with the caveat that if she won a medal, none of the medals would be awarded until the investigation had concluded, months from then. (The Team Event remains formally unrewarded to this day.)

Multiple unsteady landings and two falls meant Kamila Valieva was fourth at the Beijing Olympics. She had never been anything other than first internationally. 

“At least they won’t cancel the medal ceremony now,” she said through tears as her scores were shown. Shcherbakova and Trusova were first and second respectively, but there was not much more joy amongst them. Trusova, who had landed five quadruples for the first time, was devastated to have lost the gold to Shcherbakova. Her anguish was followed eagerly by cameras as she refused consolation from Tutberidze, declaring she hated the sport, and that Tutberidze had known ‘everything’, only escalating the scrutiny upon the team. 

Anna Shcherbakova, the 2022 Olympic Champion, sat alone and unmoving with her own tissue box plushie – a brown bear – on her knees when her victory was announced. Her coaches were engrossed in managing disaster.

Meanwhile the Olympic Bronze Medalist, Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, was so astounded to discover she had a medal at all, she burst into the only tears of joy in the room. It had been almost a given that the three Russian girls would be the medallists; only the order had been up for debate.

The following month, all Russian skaters were banned from international competition as sports federations reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hence, these girls have not competed internationally since that day. Kaori Sakamoto was the 2022 World Champion.

“Thank God,” NBC commentator and former skater Johnny Weir had declared as Valieva’s Olympic free skate concluded. He was one of many outraged voices following the scandal. But only a few months earlier, Weir had travelled to Tutberidze’s rink in Moscow – ‘one of the most iconic skating schools in the world,’ he called it. He conducted interviews (that have never aired) and took selfies with Valieva – who he nicknamed ‘Mila’. Then he thanked God for her failure two months later. His u-turn was a common one, and while the possibility of doping was not often voiced by anyone other than the most cynical of critics, there had been plenty to raise eyebrows years before the Games. If mere fans can pull together detailed databases of all of Team Tutberidze’s controversies, then it seems impossible that those working within the sport could have been completely ignorant. 

Constant serious injuries, strikingly early retirements; getting the points on the scoresheet, but damaging themselves in the process. Admissions to eating little and drinking almost no water in competition to avoid gaining even the smallest amount of weight. The questionable jumping technique that seems to crumble after a handful of years. Girls in tears after a skate anyone else would have celebrated, because it was not utterly perfect. A camp more than worthy of criticism – but largely concerns gained little traction. Because Tutberidze’s students, many of whom had barely known any other coach, did not oppose her. Because her methods allowed her to win. 

In 2020, the International Skating Union held the inaugural ‘ISU Awards’; community-voted superlatives such as ‘Best Costume’. Tutberidze was nominated for ‘Best Coach’, and six former skaters of note composed the final jury that voted for her to win. Her controversies were not unknown at this time, but nevertheless she was deemed the sport’s best coach. Because her methods allowed her to win.

Since Beijing, the ISU has passed a rule that will raise the senior age minimum from fifteen to seventeen over the next few years. This was met with significant approval, but was treated as perhaps more groundbreaking than it really is. With this rule in place, a case like Valieva’s is unlikely to play out again, and ideally it encourages career longevity. But it seems naive to think that this will stop coaches pushing young skaters to extremes to win junior competitions instead. Now, many performing extremely taxing jumps simply may not make it into seniors at all. Take thirteen-year-old Mao Shimada, who is currently dominating the junior circuit with a triple axel and quadruple toe loop. Under the new rules, Shimada has another four years as a junior. There are adult women capable of ultra-c jumps, but as we have seen, the precedent for safe maintenance of this level of ability – especially when starting so young –  is not promising.

Also in the wake of Beijing, the Russian Anti-Doping Agency began an investigation into Valieva and her entourage. As of time of writing, their findings have not been announced, but expectations were always low. They sank even lower after the 25th of September, when Valieva performed her new free skate for the first time. The program, choreographed by Tutberidze and longtime team member Daniil Gleikhengauz, was set to The Truman Show soundtrack– and interspersed with soundbites about Valieva’s investigation. As the final move, she drew the hood of her costume over her head, in clear reference to a photo of her that circulated widely during the Games: walking through the mixed zone, her pink rabbit in one hand, the other holding her hood over her face to avoid photographers. Not one adult walked with her.

While Valieva relived likely the most difficult days of her life, Shcherbakova was absent, recovering from knee surgery. Trusova skated the short program but withdrew before the free skate, revealing a back injury. Only days later, she left Tutberidze’s camp, directly stating that the heavy training regimen was aggravating her injuries. These developments do not give the impression that Team Tutberidze fears any sort of consequence, or have altered their approach; they continue as they always have.

It took a child failing a doping test for any concerted attention to be placed upon the years of Tutberidze’s empire that this article can barely scratch the surface of. And of course, they are not the only camp whose treatment of their young students needs questioning. U.S Figure Skating too has faced many cases of abusive coaching in recent years, and Mie Hamada, coach of Mao Shimada and many others, was recently sued for harassment.

The fact that the biggest possible disaster, on the most high-profile stage in the world, resulted in only a few minute changes is intensely disheartening. The figure skating community cannot continue to be selective in its protection of young athletes in pursuit of an exciting headline about a prodigy. The ISU’s anti-doping scheme operates under the tagline ‘pure as ice’; if this is the image they would like their sport to emulate, they would do well to look a little closer at where their gold medals are coming from. 

(Image Credit: Benson Kua from Toronto, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons)

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