Russia was the target of all eyes in figure skating long before Kamila Vasilieva, the world’s teen figure skater champion, made headlines. The country has had a virtual pipeline of world and Olympic champions in women’s figure skating in recent years. Sambo 70 in Moscow is the school that has produced all those wins. One coach at that school is responsible for producing champion after champ: Eteri Tutberidze.
Before the Beijing Olympics, the spotlight was already on Tutberidze and her school, which has for years churned out what appears to be a conveyor belt of young—generally 15 or 16-year-old—skaters who shine brightly and capture the world’s attention for one season, only to be replaced by the next, often more talented model the following season. At this year’s Russian national championships, Tutberidze’s students—Valieva, Alexandra Trusova, and Anna Scherbakova—earned the top three spots. They also won the European championships podium. The trio was expected to repeat the feat in Beijing.
But now Valieva is at the center of the 2022 Winter Olympics’ biggest scandal. The teenager is controversially allowed to skate at the women’s event, which starts on Tuesday, despite a positive test for a banned substance in late December that was made public last week. This has drawn attention to Moscow, where a number of Olympic and world champions have been trained since 2014.
Russia’s path to skating dominance
Yulia Lipnitskaya, Tutberidze’s first protégée to achieve international fame in 2014 was also a star. Lipnitskaya was 15 when she won the European championships. This took place weeks before the Sochi Olympics. In 2014, Yulia Lipnitskaya skated a stunning free program in support of the Russian team’s Olympic medal. While Lipnitskaya ended up in fifth in the women’s event, it was the first glimpse of Tutberidze’s coaching prowess. By the next Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, she had built up her program to produce a deep enough bench of talented young skaters to earn not just one, but two Olympic medals—gold and silver.
Although Tutberidze is not known for giving interviews, he allowed Johnny Weir to come along last autumn. Weir had Russian coaches most of his career, is fluent in Russian, and has spent time training there and brings a unique insider’s-outsider perspective to what makes Tutberidze and her school both so successful and so misunderstood. “To understand the power of Russian women’s figure skating now, you have to understand where the mentality of Russian figure skating comes from,” Weir said to TIME in a lengthy interview before the Beijing Games. (Weir has since condemned the decision to allow Valieva to skate, calling it a “slap in the face to the Olympic Games, to our sport, and to every athlete that’s ever competed in the Olympics clean.”)
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Russia is a very popular country for figure skating. It has not had the same relationship in America as it has in Russia. The Tonya Harding scandal in 1990 generated a lot of interest and lucrative television programs. Galina Zmievskaya (the 1994 Olympic champion Oksanabaiul) and Tatiana Tarasova were among the elite Russian coaches who flocked to America to establish schools. Singles skating in Russia, especially for women, declined; while Russia had dominated Olympic pairs and ice dance for decades, and enjoyed recent success with a string of men’s champions, the country had never won an Olympic medal until Irina Slutskaya earned silver in 2002.
Also, the infrastructure of state support for athletic training was drastically altered by the collapse Soviet Union. A rich network of sports-specific training centers was required to support the traditional feeder system that groomed young athletes for particular sports. Weir says that the system relied on an organized hierarchy around a top coach. A whole network of small schools and assistant coaches were responsible for screening and triaging athletes to ensure only the best students went to the highest schools.
“For a long time young coaches didn’t have a lot of opportunities in Russia,” says Weir. “Because they would be working in schools run by legends.” The official dismantling of the Soviet system created an opportunity for enterprising young coaches such as Tutberidze, who had spent time in the U.S. and wasn’t wedded to the old model.
“Eteri was the first to rocket past the rules and didn’t need a strong, star coach as a keeper,” says Weir, although he admits he isn’t privy to how Tutberidze got her start in coaching. But she “did it by herself. She had her own philosophy about training, having been a skater herself,” he says.
But the sheer number of talented young teens flocking to the school, and the extreme success they achieved, raised inevitable questions about Tutberidze’s methods, and the environment at the rink where it seemed that every skater was expendable, and only as valued as the medals they won. There had been tensions at the school over the years as many students left. EvgeniaMedvedeva was the Olympic gold medalist. She went to Canada after the Games and returned again. Then she retired from competitive skating. Trusova, who was first to achieve a quadruple Lutz during competitions, had been with Tutberidze while she trained for Beijing Olympics. However, Trusova left Tutberidze to join Olympic champion EvgeniPlushenko in 2020 and then returned to Tutberidze to finish the season.
Kamila Valieva’s positive drug test
The Beijing Olympics began as soon as it was possible., The rumors, criticisms and accusations that had been swirling around Tutberidze’s school reached an all-time high. Russian media announced that the Russian team’s skater had been found to have tested positive for banned substances on February 9. The International Testing Agency (ITA), which is responsible for doping control at the Olympics confirmed the results of the failed testing. It was Valieva, a 15-year old Russian national champion and European champion who was the preferred gold medalist at Beijing Olympics. ITA said that Valieva was positive for a medication that’s normally used to treat angina. But that the drug is also prescribed by athletes to enhance blood flow and endurance so they can train more.
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Questions were raised about Sambo70’s practices and whether coaches or staff might have been involved in violating the agreement. This is because Valieva was a minor. There wasn’t any indication that she filed an exemption from taking the drug for a medical purpose.
Olympic Committees and athletes, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee and Paralympic Committee immediately condemned the decision to allow Valieva to compete in Beijing. They noted that although the Olympic time frame was Jan. 27-27, Valieva tested positive for doping and it would have been unfair to those who don’t dope.
The CAS’s decision applies only to the suspension, and not to the merits of the actual doping violation, which it will address separately. Because of that, the IOC announced that no medals will be distributed for either the team event, which the Russians won or the women’s event, which is scheduled to start on Feb. 15.
‘Here comes another quad. There are more! And another.’
One technique that makes Tutberidze’s skaters so consistent is her insistence on consistency with jumps. If a skater pops a jump—meaning she opens up and doesn’t do all the rotations in the air before landing—while performing a run-through of her program, the music stops and she has to redo the program from the beginning until she executes it cleanly. This can prove exhausting especially when the jump is near the end of the session.
Her mantra, which every young skater at the school is familiar with, is that “you have to do today because you are not promised tomorrow.” It’s a potentially daunting teaching tool, especially for young girls. Prior to the Olympics Valieva stated that the Olympics meant training on the rink and constantly striving for better results. “You say, ‘Here comes another quad. Another! Then another. You can’t just stay on the sidelines, you try to do more attempts as well.”
Valieva’s positive drug test raises questions about how those young skaters are able to train, day in and day out, at such a high level, doing multiple runs of programs packed with difficult quadruple jumps, and whether doping played any role in their remarkable feats. This highlights the dire situation young athletes are placed in, particularly if they are not aware of or fully understand the consequences.
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The circumstances surrounding Valieva’s failed drug test has cast a pall over the women’s event, as well as an undercurrent of suspicion about the entire Russian women’s squad, including Valieva’s teammates and fellow Tutberidze pupils Trusova and Shcherbakova.
While Weir acknowledges that during his visit he likely saw the best version of the school, its students and coaches, he says “there were some tears and some laughter just like at any American ice rink with skaters competing at different levels.” At the same time, he says, “if you’re looking for fuzzy bunnies and chocolate kisses, those are not to be found in any Olympic sport. It’s a hard, hard journey.”
For Tutberidze’s students, it’s even harder because of the mystery and jealousy surrounding her quick success and the fact that she was able to so adroitly bypass the hierarchy system of coaches in skating to establish her own place in the Russian skating infrastructure. “There are a lot of different opinions about her, her school, and why she is successful,” Weir says. “She is aware of that, but doesn’t get bogged down by the press surrounding her.”
Whatever Valieva’s performance, it will surely color her Olympic experience and the Olympic movement in general for millions of athletes and fans around the world. Figure skating has not been immune to such blows to its credibility—this year marks the 20-year anniversary of a judging scandal at the Salt Lake City Games in which the judges were manipulated to favor the Russian pairs team—but this time, it may be one scandal too many.