The decision to allow 15-year-old gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva to skate despite a positive drug test has become the biggest story of the Winter Games. But the bigger story of Russia’s skating success and how it came about began much earlier.
Women’s figure skating, for the past eight years, has been dominated by pre-pubescent Russian girls. They all train with the same coach, Eteri Tutberidze, at a storied rink in Moscow called Sambo-70. After the meteoric rise of Yulia Lipnitskaya—the little girl in red at the 2014 Olympics—and Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva’s rivalry at the 2018 Games, there came figure skating’s quad revolution. These “Eteri girls” could land countless quadruple jumps and win all the medals awarded, at every single competition. Other athletes, those who couldn’t land quads, seemed like they just weren’t trying hard enough.
Tutberidze has come to be regarded as the world’s leading expert in creating figure skating champions. Her methods are no secret. The Eteri girls talk openly about not being able to drink water during competitions. They do their best to delay puberty by eating only “powdered nutrients” or by taking Lupron, a puberty blocker known to induce menopause. They are subjected to daily public weigh-ins and verbal and physical abuse. And they compete while injured, huffing “smelling salts” while wearing knee braces and collapsing in pain after programs.
Every year, a new, younger Eteri girl emerges on the scene while others retire, at age 17, 16, or even 14. Skating fans call this the “Eteri Expiration Date.” In Sochi, Lipnitskaya was 15 years old, as was Zagitova in Pyeongchang, as is Kamila Valieva right now, in Beijing.
This is not normal. Michelle Kwan won five World Championship medals before retiring in her mid-20s. Katarina Witt retired at age 29. Carolina Kostner, Sochi bronze medalist, competed in the Olympics at age 31. But in the age of the quad revolution, such longevity is unthinkable. In 2019, less than two years after winning Olympic gold, Zagitova explained that, at 17, quads had become too dangerous for her. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like 3 kilograms, to decrease the risk of injuries,” she said before retiring less than a month later.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Valieva, a healthy child with no heart conditions, tested positive for three heart medications: trimetazidine, hypoxen, and L-carnitine. There is little research into how any of these substances affect children’s long-term development. But well before the Valieva case made international headlines, there was reason to believe that Tutberidze presided over a doping program. She has defended meldonium, a substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list, as harmless, saying it “does not help with ‘highest, strongest, fastest’ and only helps to recuperate the heart muscles.” In 2019, Anastasiia Shabotova, a 13-year-old girl at the time, said on Instagram Live: “How to perform consistently? Drink a lot of dope and you perform stably. That’s all. You just need to drink the right dope.” She was then regarded as persona non grata in Russian figure skating, and switched countries to represent Ukraine.
Those in power in the figure skating world heard and saw all of this, and responded by celebrating Eteri Tutberidze’s accomplishments. In 2020, she was given the International Skating Union’s inaugural “Best Coach” award. Ted Barton, the executive director of Skate Canada, called Tutberidze’s girls a “stable of thoroughbred” horses. Johnny Weir, NBC’s prime-time figure skating commentator, posted an Instagram photo of himself smiling during his visit to Sambo-70, calling it “the most iconic school in the world” and saying he was “very thankful I got to enjoy such beautiful skating.”
Some fans have decried Tutberidze’s methods, using social media to highlight her abusive practices. Others try to thread the needle of supporting her skaters without supporting her. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve seen fans holding banners with Tutberidze’s face on them. Sports fans want to cheer for winners, and Eteri girls always win.
I’m one of those fans who knew about Eteri Tutberidze’s abuse. I fell in love with figure skating when I was 5, mesmerized by the spins and jumps I watched at the Olympics and by the delicate beauty of the girls and young women in elegant, sparkly dresses. I begged my parents to enroll me in skating classes, but we couldn’t afford it. The only way to pursue my love of the sport was by cheering on my favorites. I’ve celebrated when products of Tutberidze’s system won medals, and tried to tell myself that it was normal and fair. But I’ve also watched documentaries about the legendary, now infamous gymnastics coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, and they’ve helped provide a language for what I’ve seen in figure skating: a culture of child abuse.
The Karolyis discovered that pre-pubescent girls, with smaller, lighter bodies, could more easily complete the difficult skills required of elite-level gymnastics. Those girls were pushed into a brutal training regime and were not allowed to complain about pain, for any reason. Either they competed while injured, or they were replaced. This kind of environment—where the voices of tween and teen athletes go unheard—allowed a predator like Larry Nassar to flourish. All the while, the Karolyis were treated as celebrities and heroes, able to mold children into champions.
As with the Karolyis, Eteri Tutberidze’s abuse was an open secret. Instead of questioning her methods publicly or policing them privately, the most prominent and powerful people and institutions in and around figure skating—the International Skating Union, NBC, and countless others—promoted a sanitized, fairy-tale version of the sport to casual fans, of sparkles and ice princesses and graceful, youthful champions. Their silence has allowed an abuser to thrive.
Rachael Denhollander, the first American gymnast to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of abuse, asked the right question during his 2018 legal case: “How much is a little girl worth?” The Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to let Kamila Valieva compete answers the question: nothing. A 15-year-old girl who tests positive for a banned substance could not possibly have ingested that substance without the direction and approval of adults. By allowing her to skate at the Olympics, CAS has vindicated her abusers, emboldening them to use further unthinkable methods. And we will all watch on live television, as her body bears the trauma of adult desires: to win, at whatever cost.