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Russia’s controversial coach

Russia’s controversial coach

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Kamila Valieva’s Olympic doping scandal has made headlines around the world. But she’s just 15 years old. What about the team of adults surrounding her?


Transcript

Claudia Williams, narrating: Hello, I’m Claudia and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story – every day – to make sense of the world. 

Today… the doping scandal dominating the Olympics… and the Russian coach who’s taking centre stage. 

*** 

When Kamila Valieva, the 15-year old Russian skating prodigy who has been at the centre of a doping scandal at the Beijing Olympic games, skated off the ice on Thursday in tears… she was met by a woman with blonde hair. 

“Shocking sequence of events… there will be a medal ceremony for the women’s competition because Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old sensation of the Russian Olympic Committee did not earn a high enough score to medal…”

News clip

She was there during training when the teenager broke down at the ring side… and next to her in the “kiss and cry” box as she wept while waiting for her results. 

That woman is Eteri Tutberidze [Eh-terry Two-bar-itza], a world-famous Russian coach who has revolutionised figure skating over the past decade. 

Her students – known as “Eteri girls” – have dominated at the Olympics and on the world stage. In 2020 she was the International Skating Union’s coach of the year. 

But she’s now in the spotlight for a different reason… 

“The 15-year-old skater at the centre of the Olympic doping controversy faces a fight to stay at the Winter Games in Beijing… it’s now been confirmed that Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance before the games started…”  

BBC News

The Court of Arbitration for sport allowed Kamila Valieva to continue competing in this year’s Olympics despite a positive drugs test for banned heart medication. And they reached the decision because she’s so young. 

She’s what is called a protected person – an athlete under the age of 18 at the time they fail a drugs test. 

The CAS said that banning Kamila Valieva from performing could do irreparable harm.  

But what about the team of adults surrounding her? 

***

Eteri Tutberidze was born in 1974 in what was then the USSR. She was a moderately successful skater when she was a teenager and moved to the US to tour with a skating group in the 1990s. 

She was in Oklahoma City in 1995 when domestic terrorists bombed a federal building and killed 168 people… 

“At the centre of it all of course is the bombed out shell of the federal office building and in it’s shadow are the exhausted who for a day and a half now have sifted through its debris and counted its dead…”  

ABC News

She was living just across the street in a YMCA and her name is listed with other survivors on the city’s memorial. 

She returned to Russia and as a coach really made her name at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. 

15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya won gold with an iconic performance to music from the film Schindler’s List. Since then, Eteri Tutberidze has turned out star after star. 

“Here’s a look at the final medal count from the two weeks of competition… Russia came out on top of the total medals board, winning 33 overall, including an Olympic high of 13 golds. Team USA came in second…”

RT America

And she’s changed the sport along the way. “Eteri girls” are known for their quadruple axels – jumps that are notoriously difficult to land. 

But her methods have come under criticism.

She’s known to push her athletes to train for up to 12 hours a day. And the stars who train under her are also known for their short careers. 

To do the routines and training favoured by Eteri Tutberidze it helps for girls to be young, skinny and, ideally, pre-pubescent. 

Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won that first gold in 2014… she checked into residential treatment for anorexia three years later and no longer skates. Others have reported skating despite illness or physical injuries.

Most have finished their careers by the time they are 19. 

15-year-old Kamila Valieva comes from this school of training. She only started her career 5 months ago… but it’s conceivable that this will be her only shot at the Olympics. 

Watching her cry as she messed up her routine yesterday… It’s clear how young and vulnerable she is. 

So the question is: in this world of extraordinary pressure, unrelenting training and physically damaging practises… whose responsibility is it when a child athlete fails a drugs test?

***

This is not just a problem that applies to skating or to Russian athletes. 

But in the case of Eteri Tutberidze and Kamila Valiera there is extra attention because of Russia’s past history with doping scandals. 

After the 2014 Sochi Olympics – when Eteri Tutberidze made her name – a whistleblower revealed a state-backed mass doping scheme. 

“Some call Yuliya Stepanova the greatest whistleblower in the history of sport, whatever the case, the fallout from her revelations will be felt in Russia and worldwide for sometime to come.”  

BBC Newsnight

That’s why Russian athletes are competing as the Russian Olympic Committee. The country is banned until later this year… there are no Russian flags allowed nor the national anthem. 

Many have questioned whether the decision to let Russian athletes compete really amounted to much punishment at all.  

What was clear in the 2014 Sochi scandal was that it wasn’t just about individual athletes. It involved a whole network of people around them: from medics to coaches, agents and family members.

(It actually prompted a new law in the US that specifically targets doctors or coaches who give athletes performance enhancing drugs.) 

Professionals who work with athletes are subject to the same rules as the athletes themselves. 

“The coach who guided Sir Mo Farrah to four Olympic gold medals has been banned for four years after being found guilty of doping violations. Alberto Salazar took charge of…”

Sky News

Kamila Valieva’s doctor was actually suspended between 2007-2010 for anti-doping violations when he worked with Russia’s rowing team. 

But is it any different when the athlete is a child? 

When a minor is involved anti-doping sanctions are generally lighter… but there’s also a requirement to investigate the team around the athlete. And if they are found guilty any violation would be seen as particularly serious. According to the World Anti-Doping Agency code… they could receive a lifetime ban. 

The Russian Anti-Doping Agency is already looking into Kamila Valieva’s team – and Wada, the world body, is considering their own investigation. 

Eteri Tutberidze and the team around Kamila Valieva emphatically deny any violation of the rules. And it could take a long time to get to the bottom of what happened. 

Still it’s hard not to question whether enough is being done to look after child athletes. 

Kamila Valiev was allowed to keep performing to avoid “irreparable harm”. But watching her fall apart on the ice on Thursday felt harmful in its own way… 

She is supposed to be a protected person. But from whom – and what – is she being protected?

Today’s story was written by Claudia Williams and produced by Imy Harper.


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