Kamila Valieva's Reputation Risked, Eteri Tutberidze at Fault
On February 7th, 2022, 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Velieva of Russia made history, her name making headlines, as she became the first woman to land a quadruple toe-loop at the Winter Olympic Games. Valieva and other young women in the sport have been including quad jumps in their programs in recent figure skating seasons, several of them landing these jumps cleanly - that is, fully rotated. But to become the first woman to land a quad in an Olympic competition is quite a feat, especially at 15 years old. Valieva took gold for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the Team Round of competition. On February 10th, Valieva’s name began circulating headlines once again, for unfortunate reasons.
It was announced that Valieva had completed a drug test on December 25th, 2021, results of which were only processed and made public now. The drug test showed that Valieva had taken trimetazidine, an anti-ischemic medication banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The drug is considered a hormone and metabolic modulator, which is why it has been banned for athletes. The news of Valieva’s drug test has created a tremendous amount of turmoil at the Winter Olympic Games. Much remains unsettled as of now; there is potential for the ROC to have their gold medal revoked and the potential for Valieva to be barred from the games. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) is launching an investigation into Valieva’s team to determine what exactly led to all of this. What stands out to me, however, is that Eteri Tutberidze, Valieva’s coach, was not named as someone who RUSADA intends to investigate.
Tutberidze is one of the biggest names in international figure skating. My personal introduction to Tutberidze was at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, when her student Yulia Lipnitskaya wowed audiences with her skating. At the time, I was impressed with both Lipnitskaya’s program, her skills, and the look of pride her skating elicited on her coach’s face. After the 2014 Winter Games, Lipnitskaya continued skating for about three years. She retired at 19-years-old, due to several mental and physical health issues.. Taken as a standalone case, Lipnitskaya’s early retirement may not seem concerning. However, Eteri Tutberidze has trained a number of other young athletes, all of whom seem to have the same fate.
Evgenia Medvedeva, one of my favorite skaters, made history at the 2016 Figure Skating World Championships, and medaled at the 2018 Olympics. Her coach until the 2018 Olympics was Tutberidze. She left Team Tutberidze to work with a Canadian coach, but returned to Eteri’s side in September 2021. Medvedeva retired months after returning to Team Tutberidze, as a result of multiple serious injuries - including a back injury - and mental burnout; she is only 22-years-old.
The next case, 19-year-old Alina Zagitova, who took gold at the 2018 Olympic Games, and was named World Champion in 2019. Zagitova took a “break” from skating in late 2019, and returned briefly in mid-2020. She has taken time off from skating again, and while she originally planned to return by 2021, she has remained out of the spotlight. In an interview prior to the Olympics, Zagitova shared that there’s always a potential for her return to competition, but at the moment she’ll be staying on the sidelines. Another Tutberidze girl whose competitive career seems to be ending earlier than anticipated.
Back to the matter at hand, Kamila Valieva. The biggest controversy in this situation is whether or not it would be fair to allow Valieva to compete in the individual portion of the competition this coming week. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) convened on Sunday February 13, 2022 and presented a ruling regarding Valieva’s fate at the Olympics on February 14th. From a spectator perspective, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what the outcome would be. The CAS ruled that Valieva would be permitted to compete, but would not be able to earn any medals… this ruling has elicited many negative responses from other competitors and their fans.
After her short program on Tuesday February 15th, Valieva left the ice in tears, likely a result of the amount of stress she has been under this past week. Even still, Valieva was in the lead after her skate. Some of her competitors had been asked for comments about the situation. The general consensus among the other women is that Valieva deserves some amount of empathy, but that the ruling by the CAS was unfair. Advocates for clean sporting, like Mariah Bell (US), are frustrated that rules for clean, fair competition are being overlooked for Valieva because of her age. The CAS ruling aside, the RUSADA investigation into the scandal continues.
I have been enthralled watching this all unfold, both as a spectator and as a retired figure skater myself. My training was never on the same level as that of an Olympic athlete, but even still, the amount of time, emotion, and discipline that must be dedicated for any amount of success in this sport is immense. It’s exhausting, it’s draining, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it when you see that work and dedication pay off. I can only imagine the rush of emotions Valieva felt upon seeing her scores at the Team Event. Now, to have that achievement jeopardized, I cannot imagine how heartbroken she must feel. I feel sympathy for her, I do not see this incident as being her fault at all. She is 15-years-old, and her coaches have a responsibility to keep her safe and healthy. Nevertheless my heart breaks for the other athletes who are now competing in an unusually stressful and tense environment.
RUSADA does not necessarily see Tutberidze as having direct or sole responsibility for Valieva’s positive doping test; maybe it was not Tutberidze who gave Valieva the drug, but ultimately, Tutberidze is the person who Valieva trusts most. At her official practice this Saturday, February 12th, Valieva broke down crying, and turned to Tutberidze for a hug. While I would like to believe that Tutberidze will stand by Valieva’s side no matter what the outcome of Sunday’s hearing is, a large part of me knows that that is highly unlikely.
Eteri Tutberidze and her team know how to produce champions. They know how to break records and they are primarily responsible for changes we see in international figure skating. These coaches and choreographers know how to craft programs which have the most potential for points, they’ve produced Olympic, European, and World Champions countless times. And without fail, their champions burn out - physically, mentally, or both. Until now, Team Tutberidze has built these champions without doping. So, why now? Why now, when Russia is so close to being allowed to have official representation at the Olympic games? Why risk the reputation of an athlete with so much potential and natural talent?
If anyone’s position in the sport should be in question, it should not be Kamila Valieva, it should be Eteri Tutberidze. Not only for any role she played in Valieva’s doping scandal, but for pushing her skaters to their breaking points. It’s Valieva’s career being played with now, but in four or five years, a new ingenue becomes the next Eteri girl. And the cycle continues, unless Tutberidze is reprimanded.
Athletes under 16-years-old are well protected by the World Anti-Doping Agency, as they are deemed too young to really understand exactly what medications or drugs are being given to them by the adults around them. With any luck, this should work in Valieva’s favor and displace punishments onto those adults. Regardless of the outcome, the entire scandal has likely ruined Valieva’s first Olympic experience, and jeopardized both her reputation and her well-being. U.S figure skater and coach Adam Rippon summarized my sentiments in a tweet, saying,
“The ROC has miserably failed its athletes and embarrassed themselves on the world stage yet again. My heart breaks for the Russian athletes competing … who will have everything they do at this Olympics questioned.”
I hope that the coaches involved in this scandal receive more than a smack on the wrist. I truly do not believe that adults who care more about titles and fame than about the health and safety of the children they are responsible for, should be glorified. Eteri Tutberidze is to blame for the destruction of too many talented young athletes’ careers and health, and Kamila Valieva is sadly only one example of many.