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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

Women’s Figure Skating

Is there still room for grown women in this ever-changing sport?

Written by Emma Smallwood

When women figure skaters were first lacing up their skates to join the Olympics in 1908, they couldn’t have imagined the world of skating that would follow their historic achievement. In the first years of competitive skating, the main objective was creating clean, clear figure eights — hence the name of the sport. Over a hundred years later, women skaters are pushing the limits of the sport, competing at dazzling, dangerous speeds and throwing themselves in the air to complete complicated, intricate jump patterns. The world of female skating was forever changed in 2002, when Japanese skater Miki Ando executed a quadruple salchow jump, becoming the first woman to land a quadruple jump in competition.  

In the subsequent years, skating has seen a significant turn to technical elements (jumps, spins and step sequences) over artistry (composition, skating skills and presentation), which has changed the face of the sport. While artistry is important, many skaters would rather chase a larger amount of quadruple jumps or perfect their triple axel than add choreographic elements, like spirals, into their routine. 

The race to the top of the figure skating world in this day and age is moreso a race to who can land the most intricate and complex jump sequences, with athletes often having to perform three to four full rotations in the air. The “Grade of Execution” score, or the amount of points that skaters earn for perfectly executing their jumps, is worth so much that for skaters chasing the gold, it is a necessity to land them.

The issue?

It is nearly impossible for grown women to properly execute and land these jumps. As women age and their bodies develop, it becomes increasingly difficult to rotate, as their weight shifts farther away from their central axis. Young skaters are landing quadruple jumps with ease — two twelve-year-old Russian skaters are even landing quadruple-quadruple jump combinations. (To put this into perspective: these skaters are rotating four full times in the air in less than a second, landing on one blade, and immediately doing it again). These jump combinations give a significant leverage to win the coveted gold medal, and for countries chasing the glory of first place, it’s the clear choice to send younger and younger skaters. As the skaters sent to competition grow younger, they’re leaving seasoned, experienced skaters in the dust. 

To achieve these nearly-impossible jumps and secure a spot on the Olympic team, athletes and their coaches will do nearly anything to see results achieved — even doping a 15-year-old girl. Kamilia Valieva, a Russian skater renowned for her near-perfect combination of artistry and technical elements, halted the Beijing 2022 Olympics when her drug test came back positive for illegal, performance-enhancing substances. In a decision that will live in infamy, Valieva was allowed to perform in the team event, short program, and free skate at the Olympics — while she had had a positive drug test (though this test was taken months prior). This decision becomes even more questionable when taking into account the fact that Sha'Carri Richardson was banned from competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for using weed — which notably does not qualify as a performance-enhancing drug. Rightfully, social media was quick to call out the racism in this decision. The International Skating Union (ISU) defended their decision by saying that since Valieva was a minor, it would have done more emotional damage to ban her from performing. This immediately proved to not be the case when Valieva not only stumbled through her short and free programs, but was subjected to an absolute media circus. Reporters and fans alike seemed to forget that at the center of this controversy was a 15-year-old, barely old enough to qualify for the Olympics. 

The 2022 Beijing Olympics was a bit of a wakeup call for the figure skating community. The doping scandal, while obviously a bombshell, was backdropped by some smaller (though equally insidious) moments. These moments all centered on the Russian ladies figure skaters, skating under the “Russian Olympics Committee (ROC),” a name change that occurred after it was proven that Russia was a part of a decade-long, state-sponsored doping incident. Russian athletes now compete under a “neutral” ROC flag. 

Monikered the “Heartbreak Olympics,” the medal ceremony for the women’s single event saw an onslaught of tears, fights and breakdowns that caused international news. Valieva, the favorite to win the gold in Beijing, crumpled under the pressure of her doping scandal and finished in fourth place. She barely landed any of her jumps cleanly in her free program, and her pain was evident as she threw her hands up at the end, succumbing to tears before she was even off the ice. With Valieva out of the running, her teammates, all coached under the infamous Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze, battled it out for the gold — going into these games, it had been expected that the three ROC women’s skaters would have a complete sweep of the podium. Alexandra Trusova, at only seventeen, was nicknamed the “Quad Queen,” credited with starting the quad revolution that led to female skaters aiming at higher, more complex jump sequences. Trusova ended her free program triumphantly, landing five quad jumps (though some were shaky) in her program and setting a new world record. Trusova, already a fan favorite in Russia, felt sure to win the gold after her historic performance. 

Then, her seventeen-year-old teammate, Anna Shcherbakova, took the ice. Shcherbakova was the underdog of the Russians — she was even asked at a press conference why she deserved to be going to the Olympics when so many talented Russian skaters were overlooked. Shcherbakova fought for her place on the Olympic team, and it paid off. Shcherbakova gave the performance of her life during her free program, landing two quadruple jumps cleanly, with one being in combination with a complicated three-rotation jump. Her performance skills and artistry were high above that of Trusova, and in the end, that made all the difference. 

"...women skaters are pushing the limits of the sport, competing at dazzling, dangerous speeds and throwing themselves in the air to complete complicated, intricate jump patterns."

The results for the women’s single event was surrounded by a high level of tension — if Valieva placed, there would be no medal ceremony. They had to wait until a result was reached on her doping case, which could take anywhere from months to years. Valieva ended in fourth place, which was met with relief and pain alike. Valieva herself could only say, “at least now they’ll have a medal ceremony” before sobbing into the arms of her coach. When the top three skaters were announced, panic broke out across the stadium. Twenty-one-year old Kaori Sakamoto of Japan broke out into joyous cries as she was announced the bronze medalist, a feat no one thought was possible due to the proclaimed “Russian sweep.” While Sakamoto was exuberantly celebrating her bronze, a stunned Trusova watched as she was named the silver medalist. Later, Trusova admitted that she was told that if Valieva was out of the running and she landed five quads, she would be the gold medalist. Suddenly, her lifelong dream dissipated before her eyes. Shcherbakova sat, catatonic, as she was announced the gold medalist. Trusova, her teammate and best friend, had stormed out of the room to scream at her coaches. 

The entire Russian coaching staff was dealing with Valieva’s tears and Trusova’s breakdown, with no one left to even congratulate the gold medalist, who sat alone, staring blankly at the scenes unfolding in front of her. The cameras actually cut off Shcherbakova and instead followed Trusova, who was sobbing, screaming and had mascara running down her face. Trusova, backed into a corner by the cameras, shouted to her coach: “I hate it! … I don’t want to do anything in figure skating ever in my life!” Later, Trusova had to be coaxed onto the ice to receive her silver medal, where she looked enviously at her best friend, Shcherbakova, as she stood on the first place podium. 

These Olympics displayed the seedy underside of women’s figure skating that had been ignored for far too long. While people were quick to call judgment on Valieva and Trusova’s behavior, it is vital to acknowledge the fact that these girls were fifteen and seventeen, put on a global stage to suffer through a media circus. Trusova has been criticized over and over for her breakdown, when it was just that: a mental breakdown. The takeaway should not be that these teenagers acted this way, but why they acted this way. What were the adults in their life, their coaching staff, doing to protect them? 

Absolutely nothing. 

The girls’ coach, Eteri Tutberidze, is infamous for a reason. She weighs her skaters at every single practice, forces them to work excruciating hours and doesn’t allow them to eat anything — or even drink water — on the day of competition. Tutberidze herself has described her training regime as being from “hell,” and her training system has landed numerous skaters in hospitals and eating disorder recovery centers. Tutberidze is at the center of the shift in figure skating, as her skaters are the ones to revolutionize the jumps in figure skating at her pushing. Not only that, but Tutberidze trains her skaters with a technique that is assured to cause long-lasting injuries to their bodies: her skaters have a trademarked “Eteri expiration date,” since by seventeen, most of her skaters can no longer land jumps. Rather than depending on strength, Tutberidze counts on her skaters' lightness and an overreliance on their back muscles, causing severe, career-ending back injuries. She cares about getting the jumps in the moment, not the skaters’ longevity — which we see through the replacements Tutberidze has lined up for each of her skaters, ready to take their place when their bodies eventually break. 

Tutberidze has been suspected of doping her skaters numerous times, and the questioning has only gotten worse with Valieva’s positive test. On January 30, 2024, two full years after the disastrous Beijing Olympics, Valieva’s doping case finally came to a ruling. Valieva was banned from competition for four years, beginning in December 2021, retroactively disqualifying her from her gold medals in Russian Nationals and Worlds. Valieva took the full punishment for her doping — no one on her team received any blame. This decision has left many fans questioning where a fifteen-year-old acquired these drugs, and how she was able to do this completely on her own. 

Russia, however, is now officially allowed to return to international competition. This bares the questions: was Valieva the sacrificial lamb to allow Russia to return to competition? Is this why Tutberidze and her team, who has the highest flourishing skating program in Russia, weren’t investigated? Women’s figure skating has turned into a competition for young girls rather than adult women, and this is only promoted by the rampant issues with doping, sexualization and body image issues that coaches like Tutberidze endorse. Artistry and skating skills are pushed to the side in favor of high-level jumps, which require more stamina and endurance, which turns skaters and coaches to doping. 

With the turn to younger and younger skaters each year, a level of artistry that adult women bring to the field is being lessened. While this issue persists, there are some examples of amazing, artistic and powerful adult women that hold stakes in the sport. Kaori Sakamoto, the bronze medalist of the Beijing Olympics, has gone on to win the 2023 Worlds competition and is still wowing audiences this season. Her power, exuberance and pure joy for skating have won the hearts of viewers. Even Sakamoto, a powerhouse, has felt the pressure of the “quad revolution,” and fears that she won't be able to keep up with the younger skaters who can land these with ease. Leona Hendrickx of Belgium is currently 24 years old and a fan favorite in the world of figure skating. Hendrickx is a two-time Olympian and the reigning world silver medalist, along with very recently placing gold in Europeans in mid-January, 2024. With a flair for performance and natural charisma, Hendrickx brings an aspect of performance to the sport that we don’t see nearly enough.

American skater Amber Glenn, who placed gold at U.S. Nationals at the end of January (exactly ten years after she placed gold for Junior Nationals), is also 24 years old, and has been fighting tooth and nail to hold her spot as one of the top American skaters. Glenn has had great struggles over her long career, but beautifully displays the resilience needed in a sport of this nature. Glenn is also outspoken about mental health issues in skating, and was the first female U.S. Champion to openly identify as queer (Glenn is both bisexual and pansexual). 

There are serious issues in female figure skating, but all hope is not lost. With talk of the ISU raising the age range for senior competitors, we may see a turn for grown women taking the sport back and allowing athletes to have a longer career in which healthy, safe jump techniques are taught. 


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