By Sydney Joa, 11th Grade
Taking place in China’s capital, Beijing, the 2022 Winter Olympic Games is made up of 15 sports and 109 events, and figure skating is the most graceful, rigorous, demanding, and shockingly complicated one out of all of them. As one of the most anticipated events in the Winter Olympics, figure skaters are put under a lot of pressure to demonstrate their athletic prowess, skill, beauty, and talent. From positive doping tests to quadruple axels making history, this year’s figure skating events seem to have been tainted by a dark cloud while making daily–and no doubt, astonishing–headlines and drawing a record number of viewers worldwide.
The Olympic women’s figure skating event featured some of the most heartbreaking moments for the Russian Olympic Committee’s teenage trio. There’s Anna Shcherbakova, a 17-year-old figure skater who, after skating a groundbreaking and triumphant performance, won an Olympic gold medal. Yet when the victorious announcement came, she stood alone while the rest of her coach and supporters were focused on another skater. “I still don’t comprehend what has happened,” stated Shcherbakova right after becoming an Olympic gold medalist. “On the one hand I feel happy, on the other I feel this emptiness inside.”
Shcherbakova’s support team was encircled around her teammate Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old and the public’s former favorite who collapsed under the burden of international criticism for competing after testing positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. But because Valieva is a minor, the World Anti-Doping Agency announced that the adults responsible for supervising her–the infamous Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze and her team–would be investigated.
Meanwhile, 17-year-old Alexandra Trusova was angrily screaming “I hate skating…I will never go out on the ice again!” after risking her health by performing a spectacular routine that included five quadruple axel jumps that only earned her the silver medal. Trusova’s routine was particularly historic because no woman had ever landed a quadruple axel jump–which consists of four full rotations–, let alone five, in an Olympic competition before these games. However, her loss came at the lack of artistic quality in her program, with her choreography being seen simply as a way to link a sequence of impressive jumps. Trusova’s strategy, regardless, came close to becoming the winning method, thus exposing inadequacies in the scoring system’s ability to balance technical and artistic skills.
The three figure skaters share the same coach, Eteri Tutberidze, and are regarded as some of the top skaters worldwide due to their ability to outperform the competition with the most difficult jumps–the quadruple and triple axels. In fact, teenage Russian skaters, all trained by Tutberidze, have dominated women’s figure skating for almost a decade and the coach earned a reputation for being the world’s best expert at training figure skating champions. But her techniques are very well-known. Her skaters are subjected to verbal and physical harassment. They’re forced to consume powdered nutrients, use hormone blockers such as Lupron, and can’t drink water during competitions. They train for up to 12 hours a day and face public and daily weigh-ins. They compete when injured, sniff “smelling salts” for pain relief, and collapse from exhaustion after skating programs.
“Every year, a new, younger Eteri girl emerges on the scene while others retire, at age 17, 16, or even 14,” stated Rita Wenxin Wang from Slate. Seventeen became known as the “Eteri Expiration Date” among skating fans, the age at which Tutberidze’s athletes are frequently forced to retire due to injuries and deteriorating quality in their performances. The public has raised concerns about these girls’ autonomy, placing a spotlight on the adult figures who should be responsible for their health and well-being.
Moreover, Russia’s success has always been controversial. Some are wondering why these athletes are competing for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) rather than under their own flag. In 2019, the World Anti-Doping Agency suspended the country from participating in the Olympics, the World Championships, and the Paralympics. This was after a whistleblower exposed a decade-long doping plot in 2016 that involved at least 15 medalists from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It was found that the officials were given prior notice of testing, interfered with samples, and made positive results vanish.
The fate of these three skaters will be determined by several factors, including the verdict of Valieva’s doping investigation, the potential punishment for Tutberidze and her crew, the number of injuries that could easily befall young skaters, as well as the mental toll that comes with such harsh training conditions. Even though the Olympic women’s event ended on Thursday, all of the controversy and investigation concerning the ROC’s team will, with no doubt, continue.
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