“Team Tutberidze” and disposable young bodies
By Ariana Nicola, Arts and Culture Staff Writer
Why is it that the adults who used to stand on women’s figure skating podiums are slowly being replaced with young girls? What is it that these Russian coaches do that has the world looking towards prepubescent girls for success and fame? We must look back to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, where an up-and-coming coach named Eteri Tutberidze managed to make a lasting impression on the world with her star skater Yulia Lipnitskaya. At only 15 years old, Lipnitskaya won bronze in her individual category, and went home with a gold medal through the team event. I remember rewatching the viral video last year as I wondered why I had not heard of her since. I was shocked to see she had retired only years after winning gold. Returning home from Sochi a national hero, Yulia’s skating skills started to unravel, and she was barely able to land any of her jumps as she began to skate slower. Her time in the spotlight had come and gone as she was forced to retire after being treated for a serious eating disorder that had plagued her for years.
Eteri Tutberidze had another young star in the wings. Evgenia Medvedeva went undefeated for two years, and in her senior debut, broke the world record 13 times, nicknamed “Miss Stability”. The now 18-year-old Evgenia came in first for every major international competition that existed, and no one questioned how she would perform in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics despite being older than other girls on “Team Tutberidze”. The figure skating community had already noticed how Eteri Tutberidze’s coaching style was only fit for athletes of a certain age, and because of this, the girls on her team have been given what is called the Eteri “expiration date”: 17 years. After this age, her athletes’ bodies begin to give up, as her technique is based on low body weight. The training style for men’s skating is centred around building muscle and strength for jumps, but this style of women’s training is only possible for girls with prepubescent bodies, and fails them and their health as soon as they mature and grow. Evgenia’s “expiration date” came six months before the Olympics, where she fractured her foot and left with a silver medal. Her younger teammate Alina Zagitova (who trained under the same coach) beat her, and going into the Olympics, the advertisements included headlines such as “she’s young, but she’s younger”. By a difference of only 1.31 points, Alina took the gold medal, and as soon as Evgenia finished her last performance, she burst into tears. Disappointed that her favourite student failed her by coming in second, Tutberidze turned to Alina and pushed her to the breaking point. Immediately after winning the World Championships in 2019, then 17-year-old Alina announced her hiatus from competitive figure skating, and has not competed since.
Tutberidze’s methods are barbaric to break down these young bodies so exponentially. She weighs all her students multiple times a day in front of other teammates, and has admitted that she puts most of her students on a diet of only powdered nutrients. On competition day, they are not allowed to drink water, because supposedly, every gram counts when you are not using muscle but rather dangerously low body weight to get such high jumps. These dangerously high jumps lead to knee, back, and hip injuries in grown men. In addition, Eteri has all the girls live with her in Moscow, not allowing them to communicate with or visit their families and pets, as it could lead to distractions. There is a lack of discussion around the negative effects of her training style because the little girls of Team Tutberidze are doing skills that haven’t been seen in ladies’ figure skating for decades, if ever.
I would now like to turn the reason I was motivated to unearth my long passion for figure skating into a news article: a girl who has tried harder and sacrificed more than anyone to win, who gives her blood, sweat, and tears – her life – for a sport. A girl who comes in second to an effortless undefeated gold champion no matter how much work she puts in. A girl who at the end of the recent Winter Olympics completely unravels and realizes the love and need to impress her coach-turned-maternal figure will never be reciprocated; who realized all the adults in her life exploited her and hurt her, destroying her childhood and health in the process. A girl who after ending her free skate at the Olympics a few weeks ago said, “I will never go out on the ice again. It’s impossible! Why is it never me? I’m not going to the awards! Everyone has a gold medal! Only I don’t! I hate it all!” Alexandra Trusova’s story of unrewarded perfectionism, hard work, and exploitation resonates particularly with me.
Titled the “Russian rocket” and the “quad queen”, she is credited with the beginning of the “quad revolution” in ladies’ skating, as she is the first on Team Tutberidze to start landing consistent quads in competition – that is, jumps with four rotations in the air. To put this in perspective, by the last Olympics, only one woman had ever landed a quad in competition, Japanese skater Miki Ando in 2002. Going into the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, everyone expected a clean sweep for the Russian Olympic Committee in women’s figure skating. It is no longer a question of if Eteri’s girls will win, but in what order they will rank on the podium. The fan favourite for gold was yet another rising star on the team barely qualifying to compete in seniors, Kamila Valieva. She won every major international competition leading up to this Olympics, so gold seemed an obvious prediction. The teenage Kamila was caught up in a doping scandal in which she was allowed to compete due to her protected person status as a minor. Not only did she fall during the majority of her jumps, but she also placed fourth, off the podium. Kamila should not have been allowed to skate, and there should have been a full-scale investigation into the adults who put her in this situation, specifically Eteri Tutberidze. No 15-year-old asks for heart medication to enhance her oxygen intake; her coach and mother figure tells her to jump and she asks how high. She should not have been skating in the first place, and the harm done to her body, mind, and career caused by the irresponsible actions of the adults in charge of her in a foreign country is irreparable.
With Kamila off the podium, the gold should have naturally gone to Alexandra, but with a magnificent performance that included a record-breaking five quads, she came in silver by only four points to her teenage teammate Anna Shcherbakova. I can only describe what followed as Alexandra completely unravelled with the pain and betrayal evident on her face as she realized she had reached her Eteri “expiration date” without an Olympic gold medal. On live television, the world watched as a young girl had a trauma response to the years of abuse this sport and coach had masqueraded as training. She says that she had not won gold in a competition in three years so she thought this would finally be her moment to shine. As she is breaking down on international television, her male coach laughs at her and Eteri asks her why she did not do better. Hiding behind foam mats, attempting to have a private moment to mourn and process, she is trapped with cameras on her. She has dedicated her entire life to this, and the world could see her visceral reaction as she had tension all over her body, yelling and crying. Many Russian media sources are trying to paint this as a temper tantrum, using her age to make her seem like a “deviant child”. However, when an Olympic staff member comes to talk to her, as all her team members and coaches are ignoring her, she immediately turns down her emotions and politely says “I do not speak English”, knowing that she should not misdirect her anger onto the only person checking on her. Meanwhile, the Olympic champion is completely alone and silently scared to further upset a friend she beat when she should be celebrating. The only winner here is Eteri Tutberidze, as she wins no matter what happens to these girls, since there are always new and younger ones to replace them at any moment.
In such a toxic environment that exploits young girls’ health and wellbeing, no one is smiling, nobody wins and everyone is slowly killing themselves, blinded by ambition. I have witnessed the exploitation of young girls in many competitive sports such as ballet and synchronized swimming. However, what we saw this year was unprecedented. Three teenage girls that have grown up together compete against each other for gold before Team Tutberidze breaks their bodies and they must retire, all before they even finish puberty. I hope Eteri Tutberidze and other coaches within figure skating are investigated, held responsible for the young lives they are ruining, and women’s figure skating can return to being a sport that sustainably and responsibly trains and awards women.