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Russian Doping Isn’t The Only Problem In Figure Skating

This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.

When 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva took to the ice Tuesday in her purple chiffon skating dress to warm up for the women’s short program, NBC analysts Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski seemed at a loss for words — unusual for the chatty commentating team.

“To be honest, I almost don’t believe what I’m seeing,” said Lipinski, who, like Valieva, was 15 at her first — and only — Olympics. “Seeing her on Olympic ice right now with everything we’ve discovered over the last week. I did not think this was going to happen, and I don’t think it should be happening.”  

“I feel so uncomfortable as a skater and as a skating fan,” Weir commented. After the performance, through which Lipinski and Weir remained mostly silent, Lipinski said, “It’s the Olympic movement. It makes you question everything.” 

Their professions of shock and disbelief are the result of the revelation that Valieva, whom both Lipinski and Weir gushed over in the team event — and throughout the 2021-22 season — had tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance. She was still permitted to compete because of a last-minute ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to uphold the decision of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) to lift a provisional suspension on Valieva. For the commentating duo, as well many other skaters and fans, this was beyond the pale.

And while it’s a truly bewildering decision, it’s equally bewildering to listen to these two veterans of the sport discuss the situation like they had just lost their innocence. They’ve been around skating for far too long to be surprised by cheating and corruption. Lipinski, certainly, should know a thing or two about how the skating sausage gets made: She and her husband produced a docuseries for Peacock about the skating judging scandal that rocked the 2002 Salt Lake City Games and led the International Skating Union (ISU) to eliminate the 6.0 scoring system in favor of a points-based judging system. (A system that the Russian skaters have used to their advantage to dominate the last eight years of women’s figure skating internationally.)

The reactions of Weir and Lipinski echoed what many of their fellow skaters had been saying to reporters and on social media. Skater after skater posted tweets about the integrity of sport, the level playing field and “clean” athletes being at an unfair disadvantage in competition against athletes who have doped. The hashtag #figureskatingisdead started to gain traction on social media during and after Valieva’s short program, which landed her in first despite a significant error on her triple axel. Her teammate Anna Shcherbakova is in second, with the sublime Kaori Sakamoto of Japan, who delivered what may have been the best short program of the night, in third. 

The discourse, both online and on NBC, feels markedly different than it was just a few days before CAS upheld RUSADA’s decision to let Valieva skate despite her positive test result. The early response to the news of Valieva’s doping offense tended to focus on the abusive environment in which she trains. The revelation seemed to create a space to talk about the training methods of Eteri Tutberidze, a coach at the Moscow skating school Sambo-70 who trains all three of the female Russian skaters competing in Beijing. Under the hashtag #позортутберидзе, which translates to “shame on Tutberidze,” skating fans from all over the world posted story after story about Tutberidze skaters whose careers ended before they had scarcely begun due to injury and eating disorders. 

Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze with Kamila Valieva during the team event at the Beijing Olympics.

Aleksey Kirchu / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

“The secret is that there is no secret.” This is what figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva, 22, said when asked by Russian media about the methods of Tutberidze, under whose tutelage she won the 2016 and 2017 world titles and the 2018 Olympic silver medal. How had Tutberidze’s pupils become so dominant over the course of the six seasons, winning four of the last five world titles and five of six European titles, and going 1-2 at the Pyeongchang Olympics? Medvedeva’s answer was meant to convey that it was simply hard work. 

But the toll of this hard work hasn’t exactly been a secret, either. If they’re lucky, Tutberidze’s skaters enjoy only a couple of seasons at the top of the heap before they’re inevitably pushed out by younger teammates. (Medvedeva had demonstrated unusual longevity for a Tutberidze skater, winning through 2016-17. And though she was defeated by a 15-year-old Alina Zagitova at the 2018 Olympics, she still came away with a silver medal.) It’s not simply that they lose to their younger compatriots; it’s that by the time they lose to their younger teammates, they are often dealing with severe, career-ending injuries. This can include mental injuries as well: Yulia Lipnitskaya, Tutberidze’s first Olympic star, left the sport to seek treatment in Israel for an eating disorder. A tragic ending to her career was hardly surprising given that her coaches spoke about feeding the young skater, in the midst of puberty, food supplements in order to keep her weight down

As Medvedeva said, none of this was a secret. Not to coaches, judges and even semi-casual fans like myself, nor were they solely the province of rumor. Over the past eight years, numerous stories in the press, particularly the Russian media, openly acknowledged the abusive situation unfolding at Sambo-70, even if the articles didn’t necessarily characterize the situation as abusive, and the shadowy figures involved, such as Filipp Shvetsky, a doctor implicated in doping cases.

Over the past week, these stories were shared to explain the context under which the alleged doping took place — an environment where young skaters, often under the age of 18, were treated with extreme cruelty. As many noted, Valieva likely didn’t find herself in a situation where she could simply opt out of doping, if she was even aware that she was receiving a banned substance. (Valieva, in her CAS case, has claimed that her positive test result is due to accidental contamination through spending time with her grandfather, who claims to take the banned substance for medication.) “In order to be a part of the Russian sport program, you need to be able to do everything that you’re told to do,” said Rob Koehler, director general of the advocacy group Global Athlete. “And if you don’t, you’re removed.”

Even if coercion doesn’t come in the form of direct threats to your place on national teams, the situations that athletes typically find themselves in often don’t lend themselves to full agency due to extreme precarity. “The working conditions of athletes are often insecure,” Paul Dimeo and Verner Møller wrote in “The Anti-Doping Crisis in Sport: Causes, Consequences, and Solutions.” “They might easily feel that under-performance can lead directly to redundancy and no alternative career path.” 

In 2015, when the first stories about widespread, systematic doping in Russian sport were published, the reaction from the IOC was underwhelming, to say the least. Russian athletes were allowed to compete albeit under a different name and not under their national banner; the team of “Olympic Athletes from Russia” was born. Later, they morphed into the “Russian Olympic Committee,” and instead of the Russian national anthem, Tchaikovsky was played when an athlete won gold. (And who wouldn’t rather hear Tchaikovsky?) Unsurprisingly, this purely semantic punishment didn’t lead to widespread reform in the system. “Every athlete stuck in that system is expected to continue as business as usual,” Koehler said. “Because if you look, business is as usual.” You can draw a straight line from this superficial punishment to the situation we currently find ourselves in with Valieva and the Russian figure skating team. 

What was particularly interesting in the early days of the Valieva discourse was how, for a brief period of time, the doping story made the training abuse more legible. While the abuse has never been hidden, the presence in a teenager of a banned substance that is typically used to treat angina in older individuals put the focus, however briefly, on the conditions under which the young Russians train. The positive doping result couldn’t be easily rationalized away the way that one could rationalize Tutberidze’s methods as simply “tough coaching” if one wished to do so.

The training regimen and the individuals administering it are the root of the problem. In the book “The Rodchenkov Affair,” Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of a Russian anti-doping laboratory turned whistleblower,1 wrote that the IOC’s position on drugs is backwards. “The IOC’s attitude was that doping is evil; drugs could enhance an athlete’s performance, but they damaged the player’s health. This was not actually true; the athletes’ exhausting training regimens harmed them far more than most performance boosters,” he wrote. Coach and athlete alike go in search of drugs that will help the athlete survive the training process. “The real purpose of doping is not to build muscles, but rather to help the body recover from competition or survive the rigours of training. In other words, it was a trade-off: athletes started doping when the potential harm of overtraining exceeded the potential harm of taking drugs.”

Some substances are banned not because they confer a performance or training advantage but because they help to mask the presence of other banned substances and help an athlete avoid a positive test. In a way, doping as a whole could be seen as something akin to a masking agent, hiding the true cost of what these athletes’ arduous regimens entail. But it only works if you don’t know about the doping or choose to ignore it. When you’re forced to confront the doping itself, the mask slips, and what the doping was trying to hide — the bone-crushing training, the starvation, the delayed puberty — is revealed. 

Now the mask is well and truly off. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that the abusive practices that are being openly discussed will be addressed. What’s going on at Sambo-70 is different only in degree from what is happening in many other rinks around the world. Figure skating, like gymnastics, is rife with abusive coaching tactics and eating disorders. It might serve certain people and federations with skeletons of their own to put the focus solely on the doping violations and not the context in which they took place. If we want, we can make this a story that is only about doping and fair play, when it’s really about so much more.

That shift in the discourse was sudden. Since the CAS tribunal gave Valieva the go-ahead to compete, there’s been understandable outrage, particularly among former skaters who spent their careers being monitored by the anti-doping regimen. Some, like U.S. pairs skater Jessica Calalang, spoke of being triggered by the Valieva decision due to their own traumatic experiences dealing with the consequences of positive tests. Calalang tested positive last year for a banned stimulant. She was temporarily suspended and lost her U.S. Figure Skating stipend, and she and her partner had to withdraw from the 2021 world championships. Calalang was eventually able to prove that her positive test result was due to accidental contamination through her makeup, but the process of proving this and getting the suspension revoked took eight months of living in excruciating limbo. Though she did prevail — in part because she had the means to hire an attorney, something that many athletes are unable to do — she did say that there were certainly times when she wanted to throw the towel in. “There were times I wanted to, felt absolutely helpless,” she said to Inside the Games when her suspension was lifted. 

Others pointed out that Italian skater Carolina Kostner, the 2012 world champion and 2014 Olympic bronze medalist, served a 21-month suspension from the sport at the behest of the Italian Olympic Committee amid allegations that she had helped her then-boyfriend, Olympic racewalker Alex Schwazer, evade a drug test. (She denied knowing about his drug use.) And others pointed to Kim Ye-lim, a South Korean skater who placed ninth in Tuesday’s short program: When she was just 13 years old, she returned to her hotel after competing in a Junior Grand Prix event apparently unaware that she had been chosen for drug testing. The testing agent was eventually able to collect a sample from her, which came back negative, but the ISU decided to reprimand the very young skater. “If a young athlete enrolls to compete in an organized sport, she must do it in accordance with the rules of the game, including the rules whose violation entails disciplinary consequences. … If a young athlete is deemed by his parents mature enough to participate in an international event, she must be deemed mature enough to understand the applicable anti-doping rules.” While the ISU didn’t apply the most draconian punishment at its disposal — a yearlong suspension — this was undoubtedly a traumatic experience for a young skater. And it’s interesting to read the no-nonsense language the ISU used around Kim’s age and compare it to the CAS decision in Valieva’s case, in which the tribunal saw Valieva’s age as a mitigating factor.

These anecdotes are being used to demonstrate that a double standard appears to be at play here. Harsh consequences for some, compassion and leniency for others. While I think that’s an accurate read, I wish there was more discussion about how Kostner, Calalang and many others who have been ensnared in the punitive anti-doping system shouldn’t have been treated so poorly. Yes, Valieva should not get to skate, but also Kostner shouldn’t have been targeted because of her ex-boyfriend’s actions, and Calalang should have been given the benefit of the doubt by her own federation and not automatically lost her stipend. What would it look like if there were support for individual athletes when they’re faced with a positive test result or some other doping-related infraction instead of the current practice? 

What is also missed in the discussion around these anecdotes is just how byzantine the global anti-doping system truly is. Kostner wasn’t punished by CAS or WADA but by the Italian anti-doping federation; Calalang’s suspension came courtesy of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. And the more lenient treatment of Valieva is due to RUSADA (which the IOC and WADA sought to intervene against.) Though WADA’s goal is “harmonization” when it comes to testing, enforcement and sanctions, “that relies on countries having the same proportion of resources to commit to anti-doping, of being relied upon to deliver independent testing and sanctions, and in fact to have a culture that supports anti-doping,” Dimeo and Møller wrote. WADA has not yet been able to overcome these barriers to help create the level playing field that it claims to aspire to. 

But what we’ve got right now is an anti-doping system built around the concept of strict liability for the athlete and only the athlete. An investigation has been promised into Valieva’s team to determine how the teenager ended up with a banned heart drug in her system, but these kinds of cases are more difficult and more expensive to build. It’s not as simple as having an athlete pee into a cup. 

“If she did dope, she’s going to receive a sanction. It’s going to be a lot heavier than [what] the Russian Olympic Committee got,” Koehler told me last week before the CAS hearing. In fact, the IOC is apparently preparing to sanction Valieva by announcing that if she earns a medal in the singles competition — which is a near certainty — there won’t be a medal ceremony, perhaps because the IOC anticipates that it might have to strip the medal that Valieva wins after the investigation into her doping case is complete. The decision to cancel the medal ceremony feels like a face-saving move by an IOC that doesn’t want to participate in a farce of an awards ceremony after its own farcical punishment of the Russian Olympic program led us to this very moment. But in an Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic and devoid of many of the joys that athletes get to experience at a typical Games — friends and family in the stands to cheer for them, being able to easily meet athletes from other countries, getting to sightsee — taking away yet another piece of the Olympic experience from the skaters seems especially cruel. It’s never the institution that suffers. It’s always the athlete.


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Footnotes

  1. He was featured prominently in the Academy Award-winning documentary “Icarus,” about Russia’s state-sponsored doping program.

Dvora Meyers is a freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, VICE and Defector. She writes even more about gymnastics in her newsletter, Unorthodox Gymnastics.

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