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The Darkness at the Heart of Russian Figure Skating

Isabelle Winter examines how Russia’s ruthless pursuit of skating success is infused with a disturbing indifference about the welfare of precocious young talents.  

Eteri Tutberidze is the coach of  the Russian female figure skating team. She has trained all of the Russian female skaters in the last two Olympics but one. 

Given the fallout from  the recent doping scandal of 15-year-old Kamila Valieva, the attention of even the non-figure skating world is on Tutberidze and her skaters once more, as was the case  at the last Olympics in Pyeongchang. 

The story starts with Yulia Lipnitskaya, a 15-year-old skater who was backed by a then little-known coach, called Eteri Tutberidze. She managed to get to the 2014 Olympics, and although she wasn’t successful in the individual category, she went home with a gold medal from the team event, meaning many thought she could be the next top Russian skater. However, once she started skating back home after the Olympics, something odd started to happen: she was falling in her jumps, skating slower and generally losing a lot of technique. By the age of 19, Lipnitskaya had announced her retirement from competitive skating. This is what is known as the ‘Eteri Expiration Date’ by fans, which is generally around 17 years old. Her athletes’ bodies begin to give up around this time because the technique coached by Tutberidze is based on low body weight rather than building muscle and strength for jumps, meaning that pre-puberty is the athletic ‘sweet-spot’ . 

After the decline of Lipnitskaya, Eteri took responsibility for another rising star in Evgenia Medvedeva. She had been trained by Eteri since the start, won everything in thejuniors, and continued to dominate when  she joined the seniors. Medvedeva was incredible. She became the first skater ever to complete two Grand Slams in a row (winning all the main competitions of the same season). She broke 13 world records before the 2018-19 season and rarely fell on her jumps. She had won every major international competition there was to win, and the only title she was missing was that of an Olympic Champion. She had no direct competition and the gold medal seemed like a sure thing. 

However, by the time the 2018 Olympics rolled around, there was another Russian competitor of age: the 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, also trained by Tutberidze. Medvedeva was leaving her peak, and Zagitova came along and snatched up the gold, leaving Medvedeva supposedly asking her coach, “Couldn’t you have kept Alina in the juniors for one more year?”.

The story repeats itself. Immediately after winning the World Championships at the age of 17, Zagitova announced that she would be taking a pause in competitive figure skating: right on time for the ‘Eteri Expiration Date’. 

Neither of these skaters competed in this year’s Olympics and no one was surprised: being 19 and 22, they had already long passed their ‘Eteri Expiration Date’. 

The trend has reared its head again at this year’s Olympics in Beijing, but in a slightly different way. Tutberidze’s new group of skaters just before the Games were known as ‘The 3A’ (Alexandra Trusova, Anna Scherbakova and Aliona Kostornaia). They won almost every single competition in the juniors, and the norm was for all three to be on the podium, just in different combinations. 

In this case, Trusova was predicted to dominate in the seniors and at the Olympics, but just like beforehand, a younger competitor under the same coach came along to sweep up the gold medal: Kamila Valieva. Although that didn’t happen this time. Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine just before the individual skating was due to begin: a drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. Despite this, she was cleared to compete and took an early lead in the female short program, as expected. 

Regardless of all the drama, the winner was Anna Scherbakova. Her free skate was beautiful and she is definitely talented enough to merit a gold medal but it is a little ironic that her place in the Olympic squad was being questioned a mere two months ago. If all this drama and heartbreak wasn’t enough, it reached its peak after we watched Trusova sobbing afterwards, made even worse by the black eye make-up streaming down her face, saying “Everyone has a gold medal, everyone, but not me. I hate skating. I hate it. I hate this sport. I will never skate again. Never,”. She initially refused to even mount  the podium. 

These events were unacceptable. Valieva should not have been allowed to compete. It was unfair to her, her fellow skaters and all Olympic athletes, who should be held to the same standard.