The big question surrounding 15-year-old Kamila Valieva is whether or not she’ll be allowed to skate in the Olympic women’s individual event.
The International Testing Agency (ITA) said that Valieva, who helped the Russian women win the team event and became the first woman in history to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication that is purported to improve endurance. Russia wants her to skate, claiming a misunderstanding and perhaps Western jealousy. The ITA and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) will attend a hearing on behalf of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to appeal Russia’s decision to let her skate. The International Skating Union (ISU) will determine medals and results after the hearing, which will happen before Tuesday’s event.
Lost in the shadow of this news, perhaps, are other important questions: how a 15-year-old girl got the medication, and why she would feel like taking it was a good idea.
Valieva, along with her quad-landing teammates Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova, all train with coach Eteri Tutberidze. Tutberidze is the single most dominant coach in women’s figure skating, as her girls — most of her skaters become champions before the age of 18 — have taken home Olympic golds and silvers, World Championships, European Championships, and international champions.
But amid all that success, none of Tutberidze’s champions have gone to multiple Olympics. They’ve retired, many citing injury, in four-year windows. Even more distressing is how there seems to be a pattern of abusive practices when it comes to diet restriction and over-training.
When the IOC, ISU, and Russia convene, they’ll decide Valieva’s future. But it would behoove them and the sport to look beyond the athlete in question and also focus on the adults in charge.
Tutberidze’s girls land jumps no other women in the world can do and are some of the most amazing skaters on the planet. But what’s the price they pay to become so?
Kamila Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze has a history of injured skaters and diet restrictions
The unfortunate truth about women’s figure skating is that puberty is seen as the enemy. Smaller, leaner skaters have an advantage because of the physics involved. Lighter skaters have an easier time getting up in the air; having less mass and being narrow allows them to spin faster (think of a pencil, spinning between your fingers). Because puberty tends to add weight, height, and more fat to a woman’s body, it’s not uncommon to see it adversely affect female skaters. We’ve seen that skaters can hit more difficult jumps before they hit puberty, and then lose those jumps as their bodies change. It’s not impossible for female skaters to regain those highly difficult jumps post-puberty, but they remain the exception rather than the norm.
The downside to this, as you might expect in any elite sport, is coaches and athletes will try to physically change athletes’ bodies to keep or obtain those advantages. Hence, women’s figure skating is a sport that’s peppered with athletes who have had eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia.
And some of those stories have come from Eteri Tutberidze’s former students.
Back in 2014, Yulia Lipnitskaya became one of the Olympic Games’ breakout stars when she won a gold medal at 15. She was known for her spins and incredible flexibility. After Sochi 2014, she had middling results and ended her career in 2017 while suffering from a knee injury. In September of that year, she revealed to the Russian press she had been suffering from anorexia for “not just for one year, or two, or three” years and sought treatment at a rehab center in Israel. At the time, there were reports that Lipnitskaya was encouraged by Tutberidze’s team to sustain herself through “powdered nutrients” to keep the weight off.
Lipnitskaya never made it to the 2018 Olympics, where Tutberidze’s dynamic duo of Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva shined. Zagitova and Medvedeva combined for the silver in the team event, and then went gold and silver, respectively, in the women’s singles event. At the time, Zagitova was 15 and seemed like an improved version of Lipnitskaya who could land very difficult jumps. She nabbed a gold that year.
After the Olympics, she was asked in an interview with the Russian website, Sport Express, about her growth spurt and puberty. She told them that her and her coaches’ plan to deal with the changes of puberty was to restrict her diet.
“And in terms of puberty, when you become fat — it seems to me that these are all fictions. You just need to shut your mouth and don’t eat! Or at least a little. I eat, but in small quantities,” Zagitova said.
Granted, there might be nuances lost in translation. At the time, Zagitova was 15 and may not have chosen her words wisely. But this wasn’t the first time she talked about what sounds like, at best, a very restrictive diet and, at worst, an eating disorder.
In a 2019 interview with Russian Glamour, Zagitova explained that she and team Tutberidze restricted her food intake and that she abstained from drinking water. She essentially used water as a rinse. She said:
No, I don’t like chips. Well, perhaps it’s because I don’t eat them. I like sweets — chocolate, candy. Generally, I restricted myself during the Olympic Games. I was, you can say, not drinking water at all. That is, we just rinsed our mouths and spit it all out.
In another 2019 interview, Zagitova lamented that the game had passed her by, that she was too old (at 19) to hit quads, and that if she had any hope at landing one, she’d need to first lose weight. Zagitova has since retired from the sport.
Medvedeva, who was Zagitova’s main rival, had a career punctuated with back and foot injuries. She left Tutberidze after the Olympics to train in Canada with coach Brian Orser. Orser is known for coaching champions like Yuna Kim and Yuzuru Hanyu.
While in Canada, Medvedeva opened up about how the training methods were different, and how Orser’s club did not pit her against her rivals. In a 2019 interview with the Russian site RSport, she explained how she had severely restricted her diet and was now working with a nutritionist with Orser. She seems to allude to the same calorie restriction and water weight that Zagitova references:
I understood that I should be as “dry” as possible. I weighed in Pyeongchang one and a half kilograms less than a year before the World Championships in Helsinki. It was a difficult period, but I had no other choice ... I didn’t have too many muscles then, and in this case the body retains water very much. You become heavy and “swollen.” Therefore, everything was really very tough and caused decent damage to the body. Now, fortunately, all these problems are in the past.
Medvedeva returned to Tutberidze in 2020 because of the pandemic. And in a 2021 interview with Russian media, Tutberidze said that Medvedeva gained weight and blamed Orser and Medvedeva for her poor scores. Tutberidze hasn’t been afraid of lashing out against Medvedeva and other skaters who have left her training academy. Often those skaters, like Medvedeva, return.
“So we did all we could for her under the circumstances,” Tutberidze said. In that same interview, she mentions that she trains her students 12 hours a day.
Medvedeva has since retired, citing permanent injuries to her back. She can only turn it one way.
While Lipnitskaya, Zagitova, and Medvedeva are all retired now, the stories alluding to weight restriction and injury among Tutberidze’s current crop of students continue.
In a 2019 interview with Russian sports channel Sport24, Daniil Gleikhengauz, who choreographs at Tutberidze’s school, talked about Anna Shcherbakova. Shcherbakova is a favorite to medal this year. The interviewer talks about how she was amazed that Shcherbakova can eat “two shrimps” for dinner and be full.
Again, there could be nuances and humor lost in translation. The host is seemingly joking about Scherbakova’s appetite and willpower. But given Lipnitskaya’s history, Zagitova’s mentality about weight loss, and Medvedeva’s frank answers to the Russian press, the idea that Scherbakova severely restricts her diet doesn’t seem like a joke.
As former Olympic skaters, physicists, and experts explained to me earlier this month, skating is an incredibly taxing sport on the body. Hence the injuries that skaters power through to win. It’s even more terrifying to consider those injuries on the bodies of young girls who are extremely thin, severely restricting their diet, or in a scenario like Lipnitskaya’s, not eating at all.
Trusova and Scherbakova have reportedly been dealing with nagging injuries as they skate. Aliona Kostornaia, who was once seen as a lock for the Olympic team and medal threat, pulled out of the Russian Nationals this year due to an unspecified injury. And Daria Usacheva, who is one of Tutberidze’s prized pupils and Russian junior champion, appeared to suffer a very painful and serious injury this past November. Injuries are usually kept close to the vest in the Russian press.
Are skating and the media that covers it complicit?
Amid Valieva’s failed doping test and accounts of what sure seems like disordered eating and careers cut very short due to injury, it raises the question of what skating’s governing bodies are doing about this. The answer seems to be rewarding her.
In 2020, the International Skating Union awarded Tutberidze its “best coach.” And if you’ve been watching NBC’s figure skating coverage, commentator and former skater Johnny Weir has been — up until news of Valieva’s failed doping test broke — talking about spending time at her coaching facility and the splendid time he had getting to know Tutberidze and the girls. Weir posted on Instagram in November, about how thankful he was to visit the school. In hindsight, these decisions haven’t aged well.
“If people start to look under the hood of what’s going on in Team Tutberidze, that might actually be positive for the sport because it would really shine a light on adolescent girls being abused physically, mentally, emotionally. And now pharmacologically, with these drugs,” said Dave Lease, who runs the skating analysis YouTube channel The Skating Lesson.
While he acknowledges that Tutberidze’s skaters are talented, Lease has been critical of Tutberidze on his show, specifically calling into question her training practices. He has spoken with guests about allegations of eating disorders and possible doping (prior to Valieva’s positive test). He says what’s happening at Tutberidze’s school is analogous to the abuse that happened at US Gymnastics and the Karolyis’ ranch. Saying that Tutberidze’s coaching practices are “abusive” has gotten Lease harangued in the Russian press.
“It doesn’t take a genius to realize that there’s something aberrant taking place with Tutberidze’s training methods as opposed to training methods around the rest of the world,” he said. “I don’t think that any intelligent person who follows figure skating should be surprised. The clues have been there.”
The clues Lease refers to are accounts from former skaters, but also Russian press interviews about diets, the injuries from over-training, interviews with coaches about possible doping, and Russia’s history with state-sponsored doping.
Since the news broke, former skaters like Adam Rippon and Katarina Witt have spoken out about holding Russia and the adults surrounding Valieva responsible. And in an interview with the French newspaper 20 Minutes, top ice dancing coach Romain Haguenauer said the result hadn’t surprised him. He said:
When Valieva’s name came out, I wouldn’t say people weren’t surprised, but let’s say it’s been stuff that’s been around for years. ... To see these kids between the ages of 12 and 15 doing quadruple jumps ... it’s true that there are always questions from the [jumps] specialists. I’m not one, but I know plenty of people who are and all of them have always been extremely surprised that it happened all of a sudden. Before Sochi, Russia did not shine in women’s skating. ... And then, all of a sudden, every year they bring out four new kids rocking quads.
One of the problems surrounding skating is that it goes mainstream once every four years, not unlike gymnastics. Mainstream interest peaks during the Olympics and wanes sharply after, so unless there’s something newsworthy that happens — like Valieva’s failed test — most viewers don’t follow the skaters or Tutberidze enough to know her or her skaters’ history. In Russia where these women are considered top athletes, Lease says, Tutberidze’s success outshines any criticism.
It’s also especially difficult for casual viewers to know about the controversies when you have NBC and commentators like Weir talking glowingly about the academy. For many devout skating fans, though, Tutberidze’s methods have been an open secret for years.
“I know many intelligent people who follow the sport and like to watch the sport, but maybe they aren’t completely immersed. And they prefer to watch skating and see these beautiful young skaters and be amazed and choose to look the other way,” he said. “Or they choose to not know, and not look too far into why they are so amazing.”