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Russia’s Figure Skating Ban Will Reverberate For Years To Come

One peculiarity of the figure skating competition calendar is that during an Olympic year, the world championships are contested about a month after the Games. This world championship often has the feeling of an afterthought, coming on the heels of a once-every-four-years mega global sporting event.

The bigger names in figure skating tend to sit this one out. Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, the Chinese duo who won the 2022 gold medal in pairs, are not slated to compete. Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 and 2018 Olympic champion from Japan who placed fourth in Beijing, will also skip the world championship due to a sprained ankle he sustained during practice in China. And on Wednesday, 2022 Olympic men’s gold medalist Nathan Chen of the U.S. announced he was withdrawing from the event due to a “nagging injury.”1 These kinds of withdrawals and absences are par for the course for a post-Olympics figure skating world championships.

But with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent exclusion of Russian athletes2 by most international sports federations at the behest of the International Olympic Committee, the most notable absences in Montpellier will be the Russian skaters, making the field in France look very different from the one that just competed in Beijing. Not only will Sui and Han and Peng Cheng and Chin Yang — the first- and fifth-place Olympic pairs finishers, respectively — not be competing, but neither will the Russian pairs who placed second, third and fourth. With the top five finishers in Beijing out, the American pair of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, who placed sixth in Beijing, will enter the world championships as the highest-ranked team.3 The ice dance field will lose the Olympic silver medalists and sixth- and 14th-place finishers. The men’s field will be affected the least by the ban, as only the eighth-, 15th- and 19th-place finishers in the Olympics were from Russia.

But Russia’s absence will be most keenly felt in the women’s competition. Gone are defending world and Olympic champion Anna Shcherbakova, Beijing silver medalist (and defending world bronze medalist) Alexandra Trusova and Olympic fourth-place finisher Kamila Valieva, who had entered the Olympics as the overwhelming favorite to win the women’s gold medal before a positive doping test result from December derailed her competition. That set into motion one of the most devastating spectacles ever seen in the women’s event at the Olympics: the 15-year-old Valieva sobbing after her botched long program and berating by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who had been accused of using abusive coaching tactics; Trusova, also sobbing, shouting angrily that she wouldn’t go up to the podium; and Shcherbakova, the winner, sitting alone, practically catatonic, with an expression that looked more like “someone just died” than “I just won the Olympics.” Though Shcherbakova appeared to be happier with her win a bit later, it’ll be hard to forget the image of her sitting alone on the couch, clutching a stuffed bear, looking absolutely forlorn at the moment of her greatest athletic triumph. It’s unlikely we will see the Olympics replay these incidents ad nauseam in highlight reels. 

The absence of the Russians at these world championships could have an impact not just on this particular competition but on the next four years of figure skating. Despite this event having been something of an afterthought historically, outcomes will determine the number of slots allotted for the next world championships and invitations for the next Grand Prix season. If Russian athletes are allowed to compete next year at international events, they will be limited to one entrant per skating discipline, down from three in each of the four skating events. They will have to climb their way back to complete rosters by the time the Olympics roll around. If the Russian athletes are banned for more than just this season, it will make the challenge of showing up at the 2026 Winter Games with the maximum number of entrants that much more difficult. And over the coming years, skaters from other countries will enjoy increased competitive opportunities and exposure.

The impact of the ban extends beyond athlete allotments in major events. In June, the International Skating Union will be hosting its congress,4 which will hear a proposal from the Norwegian federation that would raise the minimum age for senior skaters from 15 to 17. This particular measure would have faced fierce resistance from the Russians. In recent years, they have become known for sending very young skaters capable of extreme athletic feats to major competitions, including the world championships and the Olympics, where they have dominated the podium. Over the past few years, the young Russians have brought the quad jump to women’s figure skating, a huge technical leap forward for the sport but one that is not without significant downsides, including serious injuries that have forced skaters into early retirement. “Our main reason is to prevent the athletes from retiring after only a few years at senior level and to make it possible for more skaters to continue skating longer,” Mona Adolfsen, the Norwegian federation president, told journalist Philip Hersh in an email. 

Valieva’s positive doping test focused a new spotlight on the age-minimum discussion. The World Anti-Doping Agency has special rules for athletes under the age of 16, which means that an athlete who has been found guilty of a doping violation may get off with only a reprimand rather than a suspension. That would make using skaters under 16 highly advantageous to a federation such as Russia’s, which has a history of state-sponsored doping. And without the presence of the Russians or their Belarusian allies at the ISU congress, the measure is likely to pass without much resistance.5 Also, if Russia cannot be present at the June congress, it can’t put up candidates for election to open ISU positions, which is due to include the ISU presidency. In these ways, the consequences of banning Russian and Belarusian athletes and officials from international competition will far outlast the length of the bans themselves; its impact will be felt for years to come. 

The limitations on opportunities for Russian skaters will potentially translate to more opportunities for skaters from other countries. For starters, the top of the women’s podium, which Russia has had a virtual stranglehold on since 2014 — save for the post-Olympic worlds in 2018 — will look completely different. Kaori Sakamoto, the bronze medalist in Beijing, is looking like the favorite to win in Montpellier. Her teammate, Wakaba Higuchi — who landed a triple axel in her short and long programs at the Olympics, the first to pull off this feat since Mao Asada in 2014 — is also in contention for a medal. Skaters like Young You and Loena Hendrickx could be viable podium candidates, too. Even the Americans have an outside shot with 16-year-old Alysa Liu, who placed seventh in Beijing with clean performances, though judges downgraded her triple axel attempt in the long program. The last time the U.S. women seemed to have such a good opportunity to earn a medal was in 2016.6 Also, the slots for next year’s world championships, which would likely have been scooped up by Russian skaters, will now be allotted to others. This means that over the coming years, skaters from countries besides Russia will enjoy greater competitive opportunities and exposure.

Some figure skating fans, particularly the Russian ones, will view the results of a world championship without Russian athletes as illegitimate, the same way gymnastics fans tend to mentally insert an asterisk when discussing the women’s results of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, games which the USSR and most of its allies boycotted in response to the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Mary Lou Retton is in the history books for having narrowly won the all-around over Ecaterina Szabo of Romania — one of the few Communist countries to not join the boycott of the Los Angeles Games — but it’s hard to consider the American gymnast the best in the world at that time given the strength of the Soviet and East German teams that didn’t participate. 

During the summer of 1984, the Soviets and their allies that joined the boycott gave the world a glimpse of what they were missing in Los Angeles by hosting an alternative Olympics called the Friendship Games. The gymnastics events were contested in Olomouc, in what was then Czechoslovakia. Soviet gymnast Olga Mostepanova scored a perfect 40 in the all-around competition — a result that, even if partly attributable to scoring manipulation and inflation, lends credence to the idea that Retton probably wouldn’t have won the all-around in a fully contested Olympics. (Mostepanova’s performances in Olomouc were simply sublime.) Of the 65 nations that boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the gymnastics teams from the West were relatively weak, particularly on the women’s side, so the results of those Games would likely be the same even if the West had participated (though the American women probably would’ve picked up a couple of individual medals).  

In a similar vein, the Russians are currently hosting domestic skating competitions featuring their stars, including Valieva, whose participation at the world championships in Montpellier was unlikely even prior to the blanket ban on Russian and Belarusian athletes at international competitions. The dates of the Channel One Cup have been changed to coincide with the 2022 World Championships. But it’s doubtful that these domestic showings will have the same impact on gymnastics fans as the Olomouc competition did. 

For many figure skating fans, however, the exclusion of Russian athletes from the world competition legitimizes, rather than delegitimizes, the event. The revelation that Valieva had tested positive for a banned substance validated the doping rumors that had been swirling around the Russian figure skating program for years, as many believe that she wasn’t the only one who had used a banned substance but that she was simply the only one who had been caught. The 2022 World Championships without the Russians, then, offer an opportunity for a “do-over” of the women’s event that many feel was tainted by the doping scandal in Beijing. And the prospect of a podium topped by the 21-year-old Sakamoto, who skated powerfully and maturely to a piece of music explicitly about womanhood, would seem an apt course-correction for the sport. 

Footnotes

  1. Chen won his first of three world titles in 2018, when Hanyu was also absent.

  2. And their Belarusian allies.

  3. The last time an American pair entered world or Olympic competition as a favorite for a medal was in 2002, with Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman winning the bronze.

  4. It was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic, though in 2021, ISU members voted on a few measures online.

  5. Any change to the age minimum would be implemented in two phases: The minimum would be bumped to 16 for the 2023-24 season and to 17 for the 2024-25 season so as not to force skaters who’ve already made their senior debuts back into the junior ranks.

  6. Gracie Gold, who placed fourth after the long, had actually been leading after the short. Ashley Wagner managed to pull off the silver, which marked the end of a 10-year medal drought for the U.S. women and the beginning of another, now in its sixth year.

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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