Facade has always been central to figure skating. The sport’s culture dictates that athletes should smile through pain and errors. In the ‘kiss and cry’ area – where skaters wait for their scores – there are rarely dramatic displays. Even when a performance is unfairly marked by the judges, skaters will blow kisses to the camera and wave to the crowd. However peeved they may be, they’ll never reveal it, preferring instead to suffer in silence. Burying true feelings just goes with the territory.
“It’s a vicious cycle when you live inside the bubble,” says Kiira Korpi, a two-time Olympian for Finland who is now a psychology student at the New School in Manhattan and a children’s rights activist. “You don’t even realise how unhealthy or toxic some of the cultural norms are.”
Last week should have seen the world championships take place in Montreal, but the Covid-19 pandemic put paid to that. Unintentionally, it may have shifted the landscape of women’s figure skating in the process.
Barring a minor miracle, three Russian teenagers would have battled it out for the podium places: 16-year-old Alena Kostornaia and a pair of 15-year-olds, Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova. The trio have revolutionized figure skating. They only made their senior debuts last year but blitzed through the sport, ensuring a multitude of headlines. In the Grand Prix final last December, Kostornaia claimed gold while Shcherbakova and Trusova rounded out the medals. They repeated the trick at the European championships the following month; their opponents left dumbstruck by their dominance.
What makes them so good? Well, owing to their remarkable jumps, they maximize the technical points on offer. Trusova and Shcherbakova have both mastered skating’s holy grail: the quad, an exhaustive element – and up until recently an unheard-of feat for ladies, which is four full rotations in the air.
However, there are concerns. First, rather than a skating competition for women, are we now dealing with a jumping competition for girls? Second, and much more importantly, what’s the cost of success – physically, emotionally and psychologically – for this collection of raw, developing children?
“The worst aspect to this is that most of the time, in skating and gymnastics and maybe other sports, you grow up in a culture that’s very authoritarian,” Korpi says. “You grow up to believe if you get injured it’s because you’re weak. Or if your body or psychological state fails it’s because you are weak. But why does the body of a teenager break?
“Obviously, the athlete has responsibility but we never really question if there’s something wrong with the coaching. Has there been a lot of over-training? I hear from doctors about 12-year-olds in America, Finland and Sweden – and I’m sure in Russia it starts even earlier – coming to clinics with stress fractures and things which shouldn’t happen at that age. It points to the fact the training has been too much. And how do they deal with that when they’re so young?”
All three Russian teenagers boast the same coach: Eteri Tutberidze, who has built a stable of female talent. She is a divisive figure, though not much is known about her – unusual for a skating community that can border on the incestuous. She made her name as a coach in 2014 when a 15-year-old girl in a red dress named Yulia Lipnitskaya cast a spell in Sochi and was crucial to Russia winning gold in the team event. She became a star. The following month, she finished second at the world championships but was quickly discarded as her body began to develop. By the end of 2016, she was done with the sport altogether. Drained and disillusioned, the following year she revealed a long-running battle with anorexia. “I’m no longer drawn to the ice,” she said, damningly.
By that stage, Tutberidze had moved on and guided another prodigy, Evgenia Medvedeva, to back-to-back European and world titles. But at the 2018 Olympics, Medvedeva was pipped to first place by her training mate, 15-year-old Alina Zagitova, three years her junior. Tutberidze had a new favorite and within months, Medvedeva made a startling and unprecedented move. She left Russia altogether, deciding to continue her skating career in Canada. “I feel more adult here,” Medvedeva said later in 2018.
And then there’s Zagitova, the reigning Olympic and world champion. Still just 17, she announced in December that she was taking a break from skating for an indefinite period. The previous month, she had admitted finding it difficult to keep up with younger competitors, who she still trained alongside in Moscow. Most worryingly of all, she described how even attempting a quad jump was unrealistic for her until she got slimmer.
“Quads are too dangerous for me for the time being,” she said. “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like 3kg, to decrease the risk of injuries.”
And this is a cornerstone of the debate surrounding the jumping phenomenon in women’s skating and the rise of the so-called Russian Dolls: the female body.
Puberty can vastly change how a skater performs. They grow taller, and heavier. It’s expected. Most critically of all, it’s natural. But in some skating quarters it’s seen as an unwanted development and detrimental to skills such as the quad jump. Physical changes mean tweaking of techniques. And sometimes, coaches don’t have the interest or patience. They’ll merely find a younger skater to shape instead. Somebody who is prepubescent and weighs less. So, it’s a genuine possibility that skaters on the edge of adolescence are buying into a fear and suspicion of puberty. And in a society where body image and the messaging surrounding it is such a hot topic, it seems skating has aligned itself with a deeply unsettling pattern.
“It’s dangerous,” Korpi says. “I was never educated on the effects of not getting your period. The expectation was that it was a good thing. Nobody was talking about the symptoms it can create, the psychological problems, the stress fractures that can happen due to the fact you don’t get enough energy and your hormonal function not working. So we need to call out the community for sending these unhealthy messages. This notion you should always restrict your food and always lose weight and no matter what you must restrict, restrict. That kind of messaging is so concerning.
“I know many athletes who are emotionally and physically broken because the system doesn’t care how much goes to waste as long as there are a few who make it. But what’s worrying is that those who make it are only there for a few years and then they’re broken too: they’re ‘too old’ or can’t sustain their careers.”
Korpi has a particular academic interest in the abuse of children and sees such behaviour as commonplace within skating circles.
“There can be serious emotional abuse in training and coaching,” Korpi says. “Maybe skating is specifically vulnerable to child abuse because of the way the sport has developed and the way we value those crazy jumps and how it’s easier to do them when you don’t have an adult body yet. So the more robotic you can treat your mind and body the better. The coach is the one that holds the key to success. But if their coaching is emotionally abusive it can have very drastic consequences and has been compared a lot to the abuse between children and parents.”
Some say it’s an overreaction. That skating has always produced exceptional, young talent. And it’s worth mentioning that coaches such as Tutberidze are working within the ISU’s age-limit rules. Ultimately, her job is to develop champions and she would certainly argue that everything else – regardless of the moral implications – is not a coach’s concern.
“Skating has had child stars – Tara Lipinski, Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes – but they weren’t pushed out of the sport because they couldn’t keep up with the technical demands,” Korpi says.
Because of the postponed world championships, the trio of Russian teenagers may not compete again competitively until the end of the year. By that stage, their bodies may have changed dramatically and Tutberidze may have moved on to her next project.
“I don’t think Eteri’s child factory is the biggest problem in skating,” Korpi says. “The problem is the sick culture that’s been created. Eteri’s factory is a symptom of this inhumane direction and culture our sport is taking. She’s not the cause. There are many other coaches who work in a similar manner to her and many federations that support this kind of coaching.”
So, it seems like skating has a decision to make: keep the facade in place or start to ask itself some tough questions.
“For many people, it’s not interesting anymore,” says Korpi. “People miss watching emotionally mature women skate instead of girls. It’s almost – and I feel this too – difficult to watch some of these very, very young child stars. Because you can’t help and think of what’s behind that kind of performance and success.”