Last month, the Winter Olympics happened, and figure skating Twitter promptly exploded. Called by some a tragedy and by others an embarrassment, the story, too, died down in the weeks following, leaving behind a sour aftertaste and a gap of forgotten investigation.
Most people following sports news tuned into the story of Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian skating prodigy, who was the subject of a doping scandal halfway through the four events she intended to compete in. People who might be described as “in the know” have also heard about Valieva’s highly controversial coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who also coached the eventual ladies singles gold and silver medalists: 17-year-olds Anna Scherbakova and Alexandra Trusova.
It is true that Tutberidze, rightfully, has been called out for years on multiple domestic and international platforms for abuse. Indeed, even before the doping scandal, Tutberidze’s methods had received increasing criticism in late 2021. However, Tutberidze would never have even tasted success if the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) did not support her, and if the International Skating Union (ISU), responsible for setting, upholding, and disciplining violators of skating rules, and its judges did not repeatedly reward her methods. Those who either bandwagoned on a campaign to bully a teenager and her coach out of figure skating or dismissed such issues as endemic to figure skating as a whole have been fed an incomplete story.
Eteri Tutberidze’s skating school is called Sambo 70. Sambo 70 skaters have swept the podium at domestic and international competitions for the past three years. They usually rely on dangerously low body mass (rather than muscle) to jump high enough to perform quad jumps, which are worth nearly double the technical points of corresponding triple jumps. Allegedly, the internet-coined “Eteri Bonus” also awards these skaters with disproportionately high performance scores, a notoriously subjective litmus test open to judicial interpretation, at least in Russia. Sambo 70 children have been subject to starvation, grueling training through major injuries, and toxic levels of animosity between trainees, methods which are fundamentally derived from the attitude that each athlete is disposable. International regulation to ban such sporting behavior does not exist. The scores still come. Every single Russian ladies skater sent to the 2022 Olympics was from the same skating school.
Valieva may not last until the next Olympics cycle. Under her current training regimen, she may physically break down before 2026; at the age of 19, she will be two years past the internet-coined “Eteri expiration date,” as Tutberidze has rarely managed to coach a successful skater past age 17.
However, I realize my mistake in fueling such speculation. Valieva’s future career is overall a merely famous example of some possible results from a system far beyond any individual. Tutberidze breaks her students, except she does so with help from people such as choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz and the figure skating elite; her students win high scores, but moreover the ROC and the Kremlin get the medal—and the international recognition—they so crave. So the feedback loop tarries.
As of mid-February, worldwide Google Search trends data show that searches for “Kamila Valieva” and related terms more than quindecuple (that’s a fifteen-fold dominance over) searches for Eteri Tutberidze and completely eclipse searches for the ISU, skating rules, the ROC’s coaching network, or any related skating governing body. They show that fans and casual witnesses are falling into the exact trap that has been set for us: to treat this scandal as a one-time failure that sits within the hands of less than a dozen people. At the center of it all is a child scapegoat. Meanwhile, we are blind to the coaches that get away scot-free and the Union and committees which, I am led to believe, do not realize what they are doing. Or, if they do, they do not care.
We need to look at how figure skating is judged and what it is that we want out of the sport. As long as there is incentive, people will not stop throwing children under the grinder and tossing them under the bus when their actions come to light. Just as there has been, just as there will be.