The 2022 winter Olympics ended last weekend, followed by a rush of articles across the English-speaking world about how disturbing some of the events had been. It is possible that we are highly sensitive about this due to the perilous state of relationships between the West and East. But one of these ‘disturbing’ stories stands out above the rest, that of the young Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, and the issues her Olympics experience raises for the treatment of children, most particularly girls, in international sport.
An Olympic tragedy
Kamila Valieva is only 15 years old. In her first performance with the Russian team, she wowed the audience with her grace and athleticism, performing the first ‘quad’ (a jump with four rotations) in Olympic history. But less than 48 hours later, it was reported that she had tested positive for a banned substance. Clearly, at such a young age, she would have been unable to obtain such a substance for herself. Nevertheless, it was her picture splashed across the world’s press, and the future of her performance that was called into question.
In the end, she was allowed to perform ‘under investigation’ due to her very young age, and the consequent fact that she was unlikely to be personally responsible for the finding. But this raised questions of fairness about other athletes whose performance permission was withdrawn, in particular, 21-year-old US sprinter Sha’Carrie Richardson who was banned from the Tokyo summer Olympics for testing positive for Cannabis.
The pressure unsurprisingly affected Valieva, leading to a lacklustre performance, including three falls in the individual competition. The medal ceremony therefore went ahead as she was not involved. However, this was not without drama, as her teammate, Alexandra Trusova, went into meltdown at being the runner-up in the competition, shouting “I hate skating. I hate it. I hate this sport! I will never go out on the ice again!” It is believed that she felt she deserved the gold medal after landing five ‘quads’ during the competition.
Too much, too young?
One issue that has been repeatedly raised over the last five years or so is the decreasing age of the Russian skaters, and their focus on complex jumping, rather than the dancing component of the sport. This is believed to be down to their stern coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who was heard scolding Valieva after her disastrous performance, despite the child’s obvious acute distress.
It is increasingly suggested that Tutberidze’s coaching method could be described as borderline abusive. For example, she expects the children to train for 12 hours a day, requiring them to live away from their parents so they spend their time at the rink rather than at home. She appears to be fully aware that the standards demanded of the girls in pre-adolescence are unlikely to be maintained in adulthood as they develop curvier, heavier bodies, and she seems to regard the onset of puberty as the beginning of the end of their skating careers.
Consequently, the pressure to maintain the very low weight required to perform the ‘quad’ commonly leads to eating disorders and poor mental health in the young skaters. Additional allegations suggest that:
- Tutberidze publicly blamed a child who sustained a stress fracture for the injury as she had not been “controlling her weight” sufficiently
- Children are trained to control water intake to reduce bloating, and
- A child ran away from a training centre because “meatballs had been taken from her lunch” because Tutberidze deemed them to be too high in calories.
It has also been suggested that the techniques the children are taught that allow them to make such spectacular jumps are likely to cause spinal problems. A young male skater who told Tutberidze that he had back problems and was unable to train was told, “So sit at home, but don’t come here again”. He returned, injured his back to the extent that he temporarily lost sensation in one of his legs, then ceased to skate under Tutberidze’s tutelage.
The whole situation has echoes of the various bullying scandals associated with gymnastics across the world during the summer Olympics, raising the same underlying issue: that female gymnasts need to be small and slim to move in the ways required, and that the changes brought about by puberty are viewed as a problem. And not surprisingly, it is consequently found that female athletes, particularly those who take part in sports where a small, slim figure is a requirement, have a much higher rate of eating disorders than the average.
The Olympics is an international competition that prides itself on its values of excellence, friendship and respect. But perhaps it is time for these to be revisited. It is worth considering how ‘excellence’ is defined, and whether some definitions of excellence might lead to a loss of respect for those who compete, most particularly those who are still children.
The United Nations Convention for the Rights of the Child sets the age of adulthood at 18. It contains a set of articles defining the specific needs of children prior to that age, and the duty of adults to provide for these. Now it increasingly appears that in both the training and the performance processes that create an Olympic athlete, coaches are not complying with these requirements; that the children’s rights and welfare are being waived in pursuit of ‘excellence’ in performance, or at least the way in which it is currently defined.
A case for child protection
There are arguments in skating that suggest that spectacular jumps alone do not make an excellent performance, and if what is being required is not possible for a mature adult of the relevant gender, then this definition of ‘excellence’ is clearly misaligned within a competition for adults.
There is of course a specific question here for women’s sport about girls’ natural development being pathologised, and the implications that this has for them both physically and psychologically, and for those who aspire to emulate them.
Analogies can be made with the ways in which children were used in Victorian industry, to squeeze into small passages in mines and chimneys, and underneath machines where adult bodies could not fit, often resulting in injury. This is the history from which child protection legislation developed, and it is important that we touch base with our past when considering this issue.
Surely it is time for the Olympic committee and sports associations across the world to review these practices and come to a considered conclusion, with particular attention paid to raising the age at which children are allowed to compete in adult sport.