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The Russian women’s figure skating team has bigger problems than doping

Kamila Valieva and Russia’s women’s figure skating team are incredibly dominant. The team is also incredibly controversial.

Kamila Valieva, who is under scrutiny after a reported positive doping test.
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Russian dynamo Kamila Valieva, 15, made history this week by being the first female skater to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics. A few days later, her team made headlines again with reports that one of their athletes had failed a doping test, delaying the medal ceremony and leaving Olympics fans wondering.

USA Today reported that a skater on the team who is a minor and who competed in this week’s team event had tested positive for doping. Russian outlets reported that the unnamed skater who tested positive was Valieva, and that the test was taken in December but reported this week. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s privacy policy, minors are not subject to the same mandatory public reporting as adult athletes.

The charge is all the more loaded as technically Valieva and her teammates are not competing for Russia but on behalf of the Russian Olympic Committee; this is because in 2019 WADA banned Russia from formally competing in major sporting events for widespread, state-sponsored doping.

On Friday, the International Testing Agency confirmed that Valieva had a sample from December that tested positive for a medication called trimetazidine. The drug, which is prescribed for heart problems, is said to improve endurance in athletes. It’s worth noting that in 2016, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova was found to be taking a banned cardiac medication that enhances endurance and recovery. The International Testing Agency and the World Anti-Doping Agency will attend a hearing on behalf of the International Olympic Committee on Valieva’s skating status.

Valieva was also the heavy favorite, along with her teammates and training partners Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova, to sweep the podium for women’s figure skating at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. All three share a coach, and all three are considered among the best skaters in the world. Their dominance is predicated on their ability to outshine their competition by landing quads and triple axels, the most difficult jumps.

Even before this bombshell doping scandal, the Russian quad squad’s excellence has been accompanied by controversy. At the center of it are fears for the long-term health of the team’s prized prodigies — landing difficult jumps can take their toll on small, developing bodies.

All eyes have been on the women’s skating team from Russia for one big reason: They’re incredibly dominant. Coach Eteri Tutberidze figured out how to get the highest possible scores, and skating is a numbers game.

Tutberidze’s stars took advantage of the scoring system, which favors risky jumps over safely executed, if less ambitious, tricks. In the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, gold medalist Alina Zagitova stacked all her jumps in the second half of her free skate to cash in on a 10 percent bonus, a rule that’s since been changed and limited to three jumping passes in the second half.

Tutberidze’s current crop of students — Valieva, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Shcherbakova — all are able to hit quads with positive grade of execution scores, which amount to bonus points given when skaters can perform their tricks. They’re among the only women in the world who can hit quads at all, and Valieva and Trusova have jumps that rival those of some of the best male skaters.

Eteri’s Tutberidze “quad squad” of Valieva, Trusova, and Shcherbakova at the European Championships.
Sergei Stepanov/Xinhua via Getty Images

Thanks to the scoring system, even when Tutberidze’s protégés don’t skate cleanly, they’re racking up points. When they do hit cleanly, it’s a blowout. This year, they’re poised to come in with gold, silver, and bronze.

Add past and seemingly current doping controversies to that, and you can understand why this team is under scrutiny.

Even before the doping report surfaced, however, there has been controversy surrounding the Russian women skaters, specifically around their practice regimens and physical health. There’s concern that Russian women’s success and their dominant jumps come at the high cost of serious injury and shortened career longevity.

Female skaters who can land difficult jumps and quads tend to be very young — sometimes prepubescent — and very small and thin. Puberty affects women’s bodies in ways that are incongruent with skating. Hips, breasts, and more height and weight can make triple and quads that girls used to hit much more difficult to land. As physicists I spoke to explained, there’s a physical advantage to being smaller and thinner when it comes to executing jumps, but there’s also a huge physical toll that jumps take on ankles, legs, and other parts of the human body.

Polina Edmunds, a former US Olympic ice skater, says that adults who can do these jumps are incredibly rare. She explains that when you look at the women who have gone through puberty and can still do a triple axel, “you can count that number on one hand.” Edmunds pointed out that in contrast to the ROC team, the US’s skaters tend to be older and don’t possess the same kind of jumping ability. (Mariah Bell, one of the leaders of the US team, is 25.)

“For the young skaters, it’s easier because their bodies haven’t gone through those changes yet. And you have a lot of girls who are just out the next season [after puberty] because they grow or they get injured,” she said.

In October, Trusova skated and won a competition but had to do so through injury. Shcherbakova may have also been nursing an injury this past year. The 15-year-old Russian junior champion Daria Usacheva appeared to endure a serious injury this past November. The extent to how serious these injuries are is difficult to assess, since injuries are usually kept close to the vest and private.

Russian skater Daria Usacheva was injured in November.
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Going back to the previous Olympics, Alina Zagitova, who won gold at 15 years of age in 2018, said in 2019 that quads are too dangerous for her to land and she would need to lose weight to be able to do them. Since then, the now-19-year-old Zagitova has stepped away from competitive skating and won’t be at this year’s Olympics. Evgenia Medvedeva, who placed second after Zagitova in 2018, has also been dealing with a plethora of injuries — a bum back and foot, among other ailments — at the age of 22.

The result is girls and young women putting their smaller frames through exponentially tougher jumps — much more difficult than they were just one Olympic Games ago. Tutberidze, who trains all of these skaters, has said in interviews that Zagitova and her peers have trained up to 12 hours per day.

Edmunds, who had her skating career cut short because of a bone bruise in her landing foot, told me that injuries are part of skating like they are any sport. There were times when she was given the choice to pull out or skate through injury, and she credits her mom with helping her to make the decision to focus on her long-term health. Since quads have become a ticket to win, she worries about what girls and young women are putting their bodies through to win.

“You kind of have to look at the severity of what’s happening to so many young girls. At the end of the day, it feels to me more like we’re exploiting them for that excitement of landing a quad on television,” Edmunds told me. “And if we’re instead creating a generation of athletes where too many are getting injured and too many are having really severe injuries at such a young age — that’s just so wrong. And I think it needs to be changed on both the ISU level as well as individual Federation levels. But I don’t see that happening.”

Allegations of doping on top of an injury-laden sport like figure skating feel especially insidious. Valieva is 15, and her teammates aren’t much older. It brings up questions about their autonomy, and puts a spotlight on the adults responsible for these girls’ and young women’s well-being.

Dominance in any sport always comes at a cost — sacrifice and all that stuff about blood, sweat, and tears. But the age of the Russian team, their injuries, and their abilities, combined with Russia’s doping scandals, has made this conversation about women’s figure skating impossible to ignore. As Edmunds points out, however, when gold is on the line, change is unlikely.

Update, February 11, 2022, 12:50 pm: This story has been updated to reflect news that the International Testing Agency confirmed on Friday that figure skater Kamila Valieva had a sample from December that tested positive for a medication called trimetazidine.