Olympic Figure Skating Drama Sheds Light on the Vulnerabilities of Young Athletes

Photo Credits: REUTERS/Phil Noble

The controversy surrounding the Russian Olympic Committee figure skaters and coaches was on full display for the world to see these past few weeks during the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics and have caused many to question the treatment of these young athletes. The athletes from Russia are competing as the “Russian Olympic Committee” or ROC, after receiving a two year ban from the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2019 for its participation in a state-sponsored doping program.[1] This two year ban is a reduction from the original four year penalty after the Court for Arbitration for Sport allowed the reduction.[2]

The drama surrounding the ROC Women’s Figure Skating team ended with an intense sequence of events during the women’s free skate program on February 17, 2022, which left several of the ROC skaters in tears, one gold medalist seen alone and dejected after her victory, and many around the world questioning the treatment of these athletes during the course of the games. 

So, let’s start from the beginning. On February 7, 2022, the ROC team won gold after competing in the team events for pair skating, ice dancing, and women’s single skating.[3] Fifteen-year-old Kamila Valieva helped her team to victory as she became the first female skater to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics.[4] Controversy ensued after reports emerged that Valieva had failed a drug test taken in December. The International Testing Agency confirmed the Russian skater had tested positive for trimetazidine. This is a drug prescribed to individuals with heart problems and also can help to improve endurance in athletes.[5] After this revelation, an emergency panel from the Court of Arbitration for Sport convened to determine whether to suspend the athlete for her failed test.

The panel ultimately released a 41-page report outlining and explaining its decision behind allowing Valieva to continue competing in the Olympic Games.[6] Most notably, the panel wrote “none of this is the fault of the athlete” and Valieva would suffer “irreparable harm” should she be faced with disqualification from competition.[7] The panel was also troubled by the 44 days it took the lab in Sweden the provide the results of the negative test. The report, however, was silent on whether the drugs ended up in her system by accident.[8] So, if it wasn’t the child’s fault, then who is to blame? Many are pointing fingers at the coaches and adults in the young skater’s entourage. The World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”) has also criticized the ruling from the Court of Arbitration for Sport, stating the panel ignored the World Anti-Doping Code in making its decision.[9] WADA states the Court for Arbitration of Sport has effectively “rewritten the Code to say that mandatory provisional suspensions for ‘protected persons’ [an athlete under 16 years of age] shall now be considered as optional provisional suspensions.” WADA goes on to state “this re-writing of the Code, which would apparently allow ‘protected persons’ to continue competing after testing positive for non-specified substances without any clarification of the circumstances, risks undermining the integrity of sporting competition and the confidence of athletes that they are competing on a level playing field.”[10]

 Because of this controversy surrounding Valieva, there was no medal ceremony for the team competition, with the United States team earning the silver medal behind the ROC team. The United States team appealed to the Court for Arbitration for Sport in an effort to have their silver medal awarded before the end of the Olympics, but early Sunday in Beijing the appeal was denied.[11] No one knows for sure when the U.S. team will receive the medals they earned, a huge disappointment for the nine skaters who surely would relish the perhaps once-in-a-lifetime moment to stand on the Olympic podium and receive their medals. The International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) also stated there would be no medal ceremony for the women’s event should Valieva earn a spot of the podium.[12] Luckily, no one else had to miss out on the opportunity to claim their rightful place on the podium as Valieva did not finish within the top three for the women’s event.

The women’s event took place on February 17th, and as mentioned above, led to even more drama. Three of the ROC skaters competing in the women’s event; all have the same coach, Eteri Tutberidze, and were heavily favored to sweep the podium. However, Valieva’s performance faltered as she fell several times and ended up with a fourth place finish among the contenders.[13] Many around the world witnessed the treatment of Valieva from her coach after her performance. The reaction was so notable that it warranted comments from the IOC President, Thomas Bach. Bach criticized the coaches for their “tremendous coldness” towards the young athlete stating, “when I afterwards saw how she was received by her closest entourage, with such, what appeared to be tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this. Rather than giving her comfort, rather than to try to help her, you could fell this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”[14]There is no doubt these athletes strive for perfection, and this mindset is what has helped them achieve their dreams of competing at the Olympic level. However, it is also important to remember that these athletes are human and, in the case of Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old child. They are bound to make mistakes. In that moment, Valieva surely needed the utmost support from her coach, but instead she was met with distance and coldness. 

The worst part about the events from this past Thursday is that this wasn’t the only reaction from the ROC group that was cause for concern. Silver medalist and 17 year old, Alexandra Trusova, was seen crying and throwing a temper tantrum after learning of her second place finish, and they were certainly not tears of joy. According to some reports the skater was expressing her distaste for the result, and stated “I hate it all. I’m never going to … never…”. She was later asked by reporters whether her comments meant she would never skate again and she responded with “we’ll see.”[15] Her reaction was quite concerning, as was the response from the gold medalist, Anna Shcherbakova to her victory as well. After learning of her gold medal victory, Anna Shcherbakova was seen sitting alone and after witnessing all the drama later stated, “I still don’t comprehend what has happened. On the one hand I feel happy, on the other I feel this emptiness inside.”[16] Emptiness is not an emotion one should feel after winning a gold medal at the Olympics. The treatment these athletes received led to an outpouring from within the figure skating community. 

This is not the only issue brought about by this dramatic sequence of events. Flashback to the Tokyo Olympics this past summer and recall the United States athlete, Sha’Carri Richardson, who was banned from competing in the Olympics after a drug test revealed a positive result for THC. Richardson was quite vocal about the difference in treatment between the two situations and questioned why Valieva was still allowed to compete.[17] Age may play a factor in the difference between the two rulings.  Needless to say, the drama from the figure skating events will likely spark some debate in the near future about potential changes to the rules of competition. Currently, the International Skating Union requires skaters to be 15 years of age to compete in senior events, such as the Olympics.[18] There are reports that the union will consider a proposal to raise this minimum age to 17, and after the events from the Olympics, perhaps it will approve this proposal.

The reactions from these young athletes also demonstrate just how much pressure they are under to compete and win. This pressure, harsh treatment and criticism from their coaches can take a huge toll on mental health. It begs the question of whether there needs to be more discussion about raising the minimum age for athletes to compete at such a high level. 

[1] “Explainer: This is Why Russian Athletes are Competing as the ROC at the Olympics, NBC Sports, (Feb. 9, 2022), https://www.nbcsports.com/philadelphia/beijing-2022-winter-olympics/explainer-why-russian-athletes-are-competing-roc-olympics

[2] Id.

[3] Figure Skating – Olympic Schedule & Results, https://olympics.com/beijing-2022/olympic-games/en/results/figure-skating/olympic-daily-schedule.htm

[4] Alex Abad-Santos, “The Russian women’s figure skating team has bigger problems than doping” Vox, (Feb. 11, 2022), https://www.vox.com/22927130/kamila-valieva-doping-trimetazidine-ban-olympics-2022

[5] Id. 

[6] Tariq Panja “’None of this is the fault of the athlete’ CAS panel writes in Valieva report” New York Times, (Feb. 17, 2022). 

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Steve Keating and Julien Pretot, “Court of Arbitration for Sport ignored anti-doping code in Valieva ruling, say WADA”, Reuters, (Feb. 18, 2022). 

[10] Id.

[11] “US figure skaters lose appeal to get team medals before Beijing Olympics end” EPSN, (Feb. 19, 2022).

[12] Tariq Panja “’None of this is the fault of the athlete’ CAS panel writes in Valieva report” New York Times, (Feb. 17, 2022).

[13] Chris Bengel, “Winter Olympics 2022: Kamila Valieva, ROC skater, falls multiple times, finishes fourth in women’s final, CBS, (Feb. 17, 2022). 

[14] “IOC president Thomas Bach denounces ‘tremendous coldness’ directed toward Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva after mistake-filled free skate” EPSN (Feb. 17, 2022).

[15] Lorenzo Reyes, “’I hate it all’: Russian women’s ice skater Alexandra Trusova stunned by results that left her with silver” USA Today, (Feb. 17, 2022). 

[16] “ROC Coach Fritical of Kamila Valieva After Her Final Performance,” Sports Illustrated, (Feb. 17, 2022). 

[17] “Sha’Carri Richardson sees a double standard in allowing Kamila Valieva to compete”, NPR, (Feb. 15, 2022).

[18] Juliet Macur, “After a disturbing night, concern rises for teenage skaters”, New York Times (Feb. 18, 2022). 

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