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We Need to Call Russia's Treatment of Their Young Skaters What It Is — Child Abuse

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Ever since I was a child I loved watching figure skating. As a ballerina, to me it was like ballet on ice, which seemed even cooler… pun not intended.

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This year as the Winter Olympics came closer, I once again looked forward to watching the athleticism and artistry unfold like magic in front of my eyes. And at first I was not disappointed. The second Kamila Valieva of the Russian team landed her first quad, I was gobsmacked. This young athlete was the whole package… strong, flexible, emotive, beautiful.

A couple of days later we found out that Valieva tested positive for banned substances. All of a sudden, her performance was not only shrouded in doubt — how much of her performance was her natural ability and hard work? How much added endurance did the banned substances give her? — there was serious debate as to whether or not she’d be allowed to skate in the Women’s event. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided that due to her age and several other factors, she would be given the green light to compete. However, if she placed and medaled, there would not be an award ceremony. This decision not only infuriated the other athletes in the event, but it caused a broader discussion about a double standard regarding anti-doping policy at the Olympics at large. 

To say that the pressure was high to begin with when the Women’s event kicked off would be an understatement. During the short program, commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski openly expressed their disdain regarding the decision to let her skate, saying it was a slap in the face to every other skater and would leave a permanent scar on the sport. They were also grappling with the fact that this was a 15-year-old child we were watching, a child who for all intents and purposes was being abused.

An article from Slate outlines what is already known about about the coach of the Russian team, Eteri Tutberidze: 

Tutberidze has come to be regarded as the world’s leading expert in creating figure skating champions. Her methods are no secret. The Eteri girls talk openly about not being able to drink water during competitions. They do their best to delay puberty by eating only “powdered nutrients” or by taking Lupron, a puberty blocker known to induce menopause. They are subjected to daily public weigh-ins and verbal and physical abuse. And they compete while injured, huffing “smelling salts” while wearing knee braces and collapsing in pain after programs.

The abusive nature of what Valieva and her teammates Anna Shcherbakova (17 years), who won gold, and Alexandra Trusova (17 years old), who won silver, were being subjected to was on full, excruciating display on Thursday night during the Long program. Valieva quite literally crumpled under the pressure, falling several times during her program and walking off the ice in tears, visibly heartbroken. Instead of being consoled and supported, the Russian coaches and team captains proceeded to berate her mercilessly for giving up and not fighting hard enough. The abusive diatribe seemed to go on and on. At one point you can see Valieva literally collapse into herself and put her hands over her ears to try to drown out the screaming.

Meanwhile, we see Trusova hiding behind a curtain crying hysterically that she hates this sport and never wants to skate again because she felt like she wasn’t rewarded for her level of difficulty. Shcherbakova silently sat alone clutching a stuffed animal looking almost shell-shocked when she should have been celebrating her gold medal win surrounded by her teammates and coaches. The whole thing was one of the most heartbreaking moments in sports history I have ever witnessed, and quite frankly left me feeling triggered. 

Having grown up in the ballet world, I’m no stranger to how abusive coaches and teachers can be to their dancers and athletes. Winning at any cost is all that matters and it’s often achieved off the backs of children. Countless Russian athletes and ballet dancers, including Mikhail Baryshnikov, have told tales of how children who are 5 or 6 years of age are selected for their natural abilities and physical attributes to be trained into specific sports or ballet. They are shipped off to live and be trained in elite facilities in Moscow or St. Petersburg, leaving their families behind only to be exploited and mistreated so as to create invincible perfect machines. It’s disgusting and it’s high time that the world saw exactly what is going on.

The Olympics has a serious child abuse problem that it continues to enable by not holding countries accountable for their actions. This was just the latest example, albeit one of the most intense public displays of it that I have ever seen. But it certainly isn’t the first. Many still believe that the IOC failed to act promptly when allegations of sexual abuse were made against Larry Nassar by gymnasts who went on to compete and win at the Olympics. I don’t know if changing the age requirements for these athletes would help but this has been one of the measures proposed to help mitigate the abuse. My only concern with that is that these athletes would be trapped in an abusive environment for far longer, waiting to compete while they are systematically destroyed physically and emotionally.

Whatever the solution is, the proverbial cat is now out of the bag and I as a viewer cannot consent to watching children be tortured the way these girls were on Thursday night. Those kids will be dealing with the long-term damage of what they endured for years to come and I have serious doubts as to whether they will receive the proper mental health care they will need to heal. My instinct tells me based on the fact that so many of these athletes and dancers eventually defect from Russia is that they will be discarded, shamed, disavowed, and returned to a life of relative squalor and infamy, abandoned to grapple with their emotional wounds for the rest of their lives.

What do you think?

Getty image by Thomas Barwick

Originally published: February 18, 2022
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