The State of Russian Skating
“Another podium sweep for the Russian women” is a phrase eerily familiar to figure skating fans across the globe, but a headline we did not see at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. After Kamila Valieva’s doping scandal, Trusova’s fall in her short program, and shocking podium finishes by Anna Shcherbakova and Sakamoto Kaori, it was an Olympics to remember. While the Russian women may not have swept the podium as expected, their presence never goes unnoticed. Whether it's the 2021 World Championships sweep or the 2019 Grand Prix Final domination, it is no secret that Russian women own the field; but each Russian victory means Eteri Tuberidze’s presence on the sideline, an alarming image for the future of women’s skating.
If the term “women” even still applies…
For the past few years, the average age of competitors in women’s figure skating, specifically champions, has been steadily decreasing. Still, nothing compares to the gap the quad-revolution has recently created between the young teenagers that can jump quads and the over-18 women that can not.
Pioneered by Alexandra Trusova (the 2022 silver medalist), the quad-revolution has completely shifted the sport of women’s skating. At just 14 years old (a junior skater), Trusova became the first female to land a quadruple toe loop, the second to land a quadruple salchow, and the first to jump a quadruple lutz successfully. Since her accomplishments in 2018, a few girls have followed, many of them junior skaters and most of them Russian. Only one of them was over the age of 18. 19-year-old Elisabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan, coached by Russia’s star Eteri Tutberidze, is the oldest skater to land a quad. In fact, she is the only legal adult ever to do so. Coincidentally, she retired the following year with a career-ending back injury and no adult woman has landed one since.
Elisabet is not the only skater whose career was cut short by the hunger for younger skaters. Specifically, in Russia, where the number of little girls starting up skating each year continues to increase, a female skater’s career is over before they can legally vote. As the other federations have been unsuccessfully trying to catch up, the Russian girls keep pushing farther ahead.
The two main reasons Russia has seen so much success over the past two Olympic cycles is “Team Tutberidze,” the term coined for Eteri Tuberidze’s girls, and a shift in coaching methods.
Even though Tutberidze did not invent the damaging coaching method that exploits little children, she is absolutely its biggest beneficiary. She “manufactures” skaters to shine bright extremely early and, subsequently, retire before it feels like they have even begun. Tutberidze does not make champions last. She has never claimed to aim at longevity for her skaters and actually embraces the idea that her rink is a factory. “There is nothing left to do except work with the material that exists and tries to create our own product,” are Tutberidze’s words on the success of her rink.
The precedent her team has set, which other Russian clubs have followed in an effort to be competitive at Russian championships, is a dangerous one for the future of the sport. Tutberidze strips children from their parents for the entirety of their adolescence, only to return them riddled by injuries with a gold medal around their neck. The unsustainable jumping style, unique to Tutberidze’s team, teaches its girls to rotate before they are completely off the ground to get the quad jump around, resulting in devastating back injuries. The fear is that soon other federations will follow the Russian methods, simply because they are sick of losing. What tragedy is it going to take to pull women’s skating off the hazardous path it’s heading down?