The dark side of figure skating: Team Tutberidze and doping

The push towards high-difficulty quadruple jumps may be involved in use of banned substances.

15-year-old Kamilla Valieva, “the future star of figure skating,” was most favored to win the figure skating women’s singles Olympic 2022. But during the Olympics, it was revealed she tested positive for the banned substance trimetazidine right after winning gold in the figure skating team event the previous week February 4th, 2022, due to the delay of the drug test on December 25 during the Russian national championships. This put her at the center of a doping scandal at the Beijing Winter Olympics. 

Doping has always been part of figure skating, and apart from raising questions about the fairness of competitions, it can cause significant consequences to the skaters themselves. bans can be applied on skaters competing in major events by the International Skating Union (ISU)

According to Skater Guard, performance-enhancing substances (PEDs) such as meldonium, Furosemide and trimetazidine have been used in the sport of figure skating. PEDs have been leading to the quadruple revolution in women figure skating by overpassing the physical limits of the skater themselves. Ever since 19-year-old Elizabet Tursynbaeva coached by Tutberidze landed a quadruple jump during 2017 season, the following years more female skaters, majority of them in junior and coached by Tutberidze will succeed in including quadruple jumps in their program. The quad revolution that seems to be taking women figure skating by storm the last few years, has also brought with it an lack of variety of nationality of skater on the national biggest podium with mainly Russian skaters winning everything there is to win. 

The basics of figure skating, rules, and scoring are important to understanding why skaters may use PEDs. Different elements are required to be in the skater’s program depending on the competition, but under the women’s section of ISU national championships and Olympics requirements, in each skater program, the athletes are required to have six jumps; the minimum jump rotation of each jump in the air is one and a half, but through the evolution of the sports most skater jumps are usually triples. 

Most recently, in order to be competitive and have a chance of winning, the skater will need to include at least one quadruple jump in their program. Quadruple jumps are physically taxing and place a tremendous strain on the skater’s body. To successfully land a quadruple jump, the skater must stay in the air for 0.65 to 0.7 seconds, and reach a rotational speed of almost 500 revolutions per minute. 

Tom Zakrajsek, a figure skating coach and former competitive skater said, “When landing this jump, the skater will land with seven times their body weight, and if they unfortunately fall, the skater said it feels like their intestines end up in their throat.”

According to CNBC the Russian figure skating team has been accused of doping since 2014. Last year, one team member Kamilia Valieva tested positive for a banned substance. This came just 10 months after WADA announced the ban of the Russian team from competing under the Russian flag in international competition for four years due to running a state-sponsored doping program., The Russian figure skating team is led by coach Eteri Tutberidze, the head coach of Sambo-70, a skating club in Moscow. Famous skaters on the team include Anna Shcherbakova, Alexandra Trusova, and Kamilla Valieva. Team Tutberidze has dominated recent international competitions, and its members have won the past two female single figure skating Olympic gold medals and have taken the top three spots in a range of international competitions.

One of the reasons for this success is the number of quadruple jumps in the skaters’ programs. Tutberidze’s coaching tactics include focusing on young skaters (between 8 and 16 years), as these skaters are generally smaller, lighter, and have a higher rate to successfully land quadruple jumps. In addition, Tutberidze puts a variety of quadruple jumps in the program, with most of these jumps in the second half which leads to higher scores. 

There is, however, a cost to this strategy. Because young skaters’ bodies have not fully matured, the high landing pressure of the jumps can cause significant injury to the skaters, such as chronic back injuries. 

Commentators suspect that this is the background to the use of PEDs by Team Tutberidze: that for the skater to have more time to practice quadruple jumps, according to The Cut it’s suspected that Eteri Tutberidze gets her skaters to take PEDs since during a Russian Ukraine skater Anastasiia Shabotova instagram live, she “spoke out about Team Tutberize’s alleged doping,” while being asked  ““How to perform consistently?” Shabotova said. “Drink a lot of dope.” She was subsequently banned from competing for Russia and now competes for Ukraine.” The reason behind the usage of drugs is that, while skaters practice quadruple jumps on the ice there is a high chance of getting injured no matter how well trained they are. During the Champions on Ice show hosted by team Tutberidze, while Evgeny Semenenko, the 2021 Russian junior national champion, was performing his solo he accidentally fell while doing a quadruple jump and suffered a significant concussion resulting in spending days in the hospital. 

It is alleged that Tutberidze Skaters were also given Lupron in order to get back on the ice sooner and stay light-weighted to out rotate their competitors during their competition.” In Russia, it is widely known that young ice skaters use hormone blockers to keep their bodies from changing.” since once a female skater hits puberty their weight increases. Changes that occur in young girls’ bodies can cause difficulty in their ability to sucessfully complete their programs and in particular quad jumps. 

Yulia Lipnitskaya, the first student of Eteri Tutberidze, made an appearance in the 2014 – 2015 season winning the 2014 team event during the Winter Olympics but was not able to maintain consistency due to beginning puberty. She announced her retirement from competitive skating in August 2017. Lipnitskaya cited recurring injuries and developing an eating disorder while trying to control her weight with the help of PEDs. Alena Kanysheva, a former skater training under team Tutberidze at the age of 13, retired at 16 after a significant back injury. According to The Cut, “Eteri Tutberidze said she would still be able to compete with medical help” but refused to say what kind. 

After Kamila Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned metabolic agent used to treat heart conditions, her Olympic medals were withheld until further investigation and she is not allowed to participate in any skating competition. Due to being under sixteen, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers her a ‘‘protected person” stating that if she can prove that the usage of drugs was unintentional, they will withdraw charges. Her coaches replied that the positive test was the result of drinking her grandfather’s contaminated glass of water. On February 15th, WADA confirmed the lift of Kamila Valieva suspension. 
Valieva was an Olympic champion as well as a world-record-breaker, and Alena Kanysheva could be a national champion. But now their achievements may come with an asterisk.

cover image credit: Flickr

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