Like so many other people who watched Russian star Kamila Valieva crumble during her free skate at the Beijing Games, Tara Lipinski, the Olympic champion and NBC announcer, woke up still feeling shaken over it.
She had slept just 2½ hours, worried about Valieva, 15, and her 17-year-old Russian teammates, whose raw emotions of devastation, joy and rage were captured on live TV as they navigated the debacle on their own, without any real comfort from adults.
It’s the opposite of how Lipinski felt when she won her Olympic gold medal at 15.
“I had a very supportive team around me that gave me a safe place to pursue my Olympic dream and catch me when I fell,” she said in a telephone interview. “That’s not the case for everyone, and that’s not everyone’s situation, and something needs to be put in place to protect these young athletes.”
The question is, what can sports officials do to protect vulnerable teenagers from the kind of night that exposed the worst of Olympic sports and of people?
Valieva, at the center of a doping scandal, finished fourth and wandered around the rink in tears after a disastrous free skate. Anna Shcherbakova won but said she felt empty inside. Alexandra Trusova, the silver medalist, was crying and enraged because she thought she deserved to win and just wanted her mother.
Finding a way to protect teenagers inside an authoritarian sports system like Russia’s will be challenging. No doubt girls and women fear speaking out because of possible reprisal against them or their families. Setting up an independent group to provide oversight there is not as easy as it sounds.
This is Russia we’re talking about, the country caught switching out urine samples in a doping scheme at the 2014 Sochi Games so its athletes could win.
Watching a child suffer on live television has prompted some people to ask whether Valieva was too young to compete at the Games. The age issue is an age-old issue in sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where athletes peak in their midteens, before their bodies fully mature. In June, the International Skating Union is expected to consider a proposal to raise the age minimum to compete in senior events, like the Olympics, to 17 from 15.
Karen Chen, the American who finished 16th in the women’s event, explained this week how this would help young athletes, saying that when she was 15 or 16, she was completely different from the person she is now at 22.
“I don’t know if robot is the right word, but my coaches would tell me to go do something, and I’d do it,” she said.
The word “robot” should send off warning signals. Many young gymnasts in the Larry Nassar sexual abuse case described themselves as robots who did as they were told, even if it was trying skills that might hurt them or limiting their food and even water intake. They also were too scared to question authority, even when being abused. The transformation of these young women into machines controlled by adults nearly crushed the sport.
Nassar, the former U.S. national team doctor found to have molested hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment, exploited a system that propped him up as a person to trust.
“If you have athletes who are raised in an abusive reality, it’s not like a switch is flipped when you turn 17 and suddenly your warped sense of reality and perception is eradicated,” said Rachael Denhollander, the first athlete to publicly accuse Nassar of sexual abuse. “How old were some of Larry’s victims who, honest to God, believed that they were getting medical procedures because they had been taught not to trust their own perceptions when they were just children?”
Some of those gymnasts were as young as 8. Some were in their 20s.
“We need to be on guard for individuals and entities who are going to make raising the age minimum sound like an easy fix because they don’t want to dismantle the system and get rid of the people in power who are feeding the system,” Denhollander said. “That requires much more work and complete restructuring, and people don’t want to do that work.”
She added that raising the age might be a piece of the puzzle but said older figure skaters might still face abuse because mature women will then be forced to remain as small and as thin as 15-year-olds. In skating, lighter athletes find it easier to spin and jump.
“It’s almost better for them to get out of the sport fast when they are young so they can continue growing,” Denhollander said. “Raising the age might be like extending the abusive system for a few more years.”
And it won’t fix the core problem in the sport, said Polina Edmunds, who was 15 when she finished ninth at the 2014 Sochi Games for the United States.
In a discussion on Instagram Live on Thursday, Edmunds said Eteri Tutberidze, the coach of all three Russians who competed in the women’s event in Beijing, holds undue power in the sport and “needs to be gone.” Tutberidze’s skaters have been given inflated scores and not penalized for mistakes for years, she said, so if the judging doesn’t change, the age limit must.
“I don’t think you should be held back at your competitive peak just because this whole fiasco is happening,” Edmunds said of raising the minimum age. “If you raise the age limit and not do anything about what this coaching team is doing, corruption is still going to happen.”
Tutberidze’s skaters are known for their quadruple jumps, and landing them helps the skater rack up a huge number of points. But to do quads, according to Tutberidze, girls must start young to learn a foundation of the technique.
At the free skate Thursday, Tutberidze was caught on camera telling Valieva, just as she stepped off the ice, “Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why?” They did not hug.
Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, said Friday that he was “very disturbed” to see how Valieva’s entourage treated her and the other Russians. He said that the committee’s executive board had been discussing raising the minimum competition age but that it would be up to the international sports federations to mandate it.
Valieva’s entourage, including Tutberidze, is already under investigation by anti-doping authorities after Valieva tested positive for a banned heart drug before the Olympics.
Russia quickly responded to Bach’s comments, with the deputy prime minister saying Bach has “his own fictional narrative.”
But the whole world saw a true narrative play out on live TV Thursday: Russian teenagers cried and shouted and flailed on the biggest stage in sports, and not a single person offered them true solace. Maybe it will lead to real change.
“I don’t have the answers right now,” Lipinski said. “But I do know that this is not something you can just let go.”
© 2022 The New York Times Company
Read more at nytimes.com
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.