The 2022 Bejing Olympics have come to an end but not before the mandatory scandal that seems endemic before any closing ceremony. Not at all surprising, the Russians were at the heart of the most recent saga.
The backstory is that their star 15 year old figure skater, who was destined to win a gold medal, tested positive for Trimetazidine, a drug which means more endurance which means more ability to train for longer periods which means greater chance for a gold medal, all while still maintaining that stick-thin figure. She was allowed to continue skating while the investigation continued under the belief that to deny her the right to compete would be emotionally destructive. (Did no one think that letting her skate after so much drama and turmoil and upset might not only affect her emotionally but actually traumatize her? At age 15, your emotional regulation is not exactly well-developed.)
So, we get to the proverbial ‘kiss and cry’ area (never so aptly named as in the 2022 Beijing Olympics) on February 17th. The “kiss and cry” written right on the coaches’ lanyards was a true harbinger of the unbelievable, dramatic, overblown, heart-wrenching spectacle that was to unfold. The chosen #1, accused of doping (or, maybe more correctly, being doped), flubbed her program (not surprising due to the chaos) and was, quite literally, traumatized. She finished 4th. The minute she stepped off the ice, her coach chastised her performance. Then, probably recognizing that the eyes of the world were watching, tried to console her and control her sobbing. Simultaneously, the second place Russian teenager threw a tantrum that would make any two year old proud, sobbing and threatening not to go on the podium and never to skate again, yelling that she hated the sport of figure skating. The other Russian officials were scrambling to appease her. The third place Japanese skater who was literally on her knees crying ( apparently with tears of joy and, maybe, shock) had a hard time turning off the fawcet. So, everyone was dripping. The Russian girl who had just won an Olympic gold medal, sat all by herself for a long period, with no hugs, no congratulations, not knowing what to do, and wondering what the heck was happening. Awkward. No one was having fun.
According to WTHR.com, ‘Russian figure skating coach produces champions with propensity for injury, short careers’, the coaching camp for the 15 year old is notorious for hardness. The coach in question has trained figure skaters for eight years, and her skaters dominate competitions if they don't retire as teenagers and/or suffer serious injuries. (Does anyone consider that these young bodies are not even developed and might be more vulnerable to injury when they are endlessly practicing quadruple jumps, even more so if their caloric intake is limited to maintain their twig-like figures?) She focusses on athleticism and a “fearsome work ethic” (I read somewhere that training days last a minimum of 12 hours). She chooses “the most promising Russian skaters”, and her skaters have won the national championships for seven years in a row. President of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach stated that he was “very disturbed” and: “When I saw how she (the 15 year old phenom) was received by the closest entourage with such a tremendous coolness, it was chilling to see this.” (au.sports.yahoo.com, “’Chilling’: Olympic boss ‘disturbed by coach’s Kamila Valieva moment”) Does this all sound just a little like a definition of abuse?
In my experience after a career in human services, we know that a scenario ripe for abuse consists of a controlling party (in this case, the Russian federation and the coaches), there is something important at stake (in figure skating, it is the rewards, adoration, an Olympic medal, endorsements, a pro-career), and there is a vulnerable party (underage skaters who are so young, who have spent so much of their life training, that they have virtually NO life experience and, thus, no input).
But what is going on in the world of figure skating that gives rise to such turmoil? Some thoughts from the outside looking in: The top Russian figure skaters are all under the age of 18, with the one at the centre of this Olympic controversy just 15 (In order to peak before full puberty hits?). Then, there is the Russian ‘system’ which appears to be set up to win at any cost. (I wonder what extra ‘benefits’ are made available to Russian coaches and athletes and families who are at the very top??) And consider that the world of figure skating, itself, is on such a high pedestal with little girls dreaming of stardom, with princess dresses and hair-do’s (according to insider.com, the median price for an Olympic figure skating dress is $3,000), with immaculate precision requiring hours of repetition, and, as my figure skating family (who really know their swizzles from their twizzles and all other moves) tell me, with subjective scoring, and with coaches standing to make A LOT of money if their athlete does very well (in the figure skating world, they become stars if their athlete is a star) . The whole situation is ripe for abuse.
And parents must be complicit in all of this, simply by the fact that they allow this to happen.
Figure skating, and athletics in general, is rife with mental health issues, aside from doping scandals. Remember, from my previous post, 41.4% of Canadian athletes preparing for the 2020 Olympics met the criteria for a mental health diagnosis. And that is in Canada where the expectations to perform are arguably nowhere near those in countries where there is systemic plotting on how to win gold medals. In www.eatingdisorderhopecom, ‘Figure Skating and Eating Disorders: What You Need to Know', it is revealed “ . . . that 20.5% of competitive skaters reported having a history of an eating disorder . . . a majority of the skaters (62.5%) reported symptoms of anorexia.” In waldeneatingdisorders.com, “Adam Rippon Opens Up About Starving Himself for a Figure Skater’s Body’, it is noted that eating disorders tend to be more common in “aesthetic-focused and judged sports”. And we all know what happens when young bones are deprived of essential nutrients – that just opens the door for injuries, especially in over-training adolescents.
So, it is a complicated issue with many layers beneath the visible doping scandal.
But what to do? Remember I am on the outside looking in, but that is not always a bad thing. My view: There are two simple things that could be done immediately: start off with setting an age limit for Olympics – it is an adult ‘game’ for 18 plus – and stick with it. That might help prevent some exploitation of minors. And ban countries where there is proof of systemic doping – and stick with it (don’t let them back in by some other name . . . ).
For the figure skating world at large, it might be more complicated. At the grass roots level, make the focus on fun. Make sure skaters (and their parents!) know that only a very miniscule portion make elite status (there are so many factors that are beyond one’s control). Maybe put less emphasis on competitions and physical appearances (including the glamour aspects of sparkly outfits and hair-do's) right off the start to maybe combat some of the fixation on the body, a fixation which is one lead-up to mental health issues.
And at the elite level, if the sport can’t manage itself, maybe it needs ‘policing’? Is there a maximum limit to training hours, especially for under-age skaters? Are there requirements regarding health checks (both physical and mental), healthy weights, and diet? Are there maximum standards for reimbursement for coaches and athletes? (The issue is, of course, that these guidelines have to be sanctioned and monitored and will only work if any given country is a ‘rule follower’ - which brings us back to banning countries who do not want to 'play nice'.)
So, these are some thoughts. The world of elite figure skating is in dire need of an SOS (Save Our Skating) right now, a new perspective to prevent the despair, the mental health issues, and the abuse - and to prevent us from cringing when we watch the Winter Olympics 2026.