Eteri Tutberidze and the Price of Gold: The cost of Russia’s figure skating dominance

Russia’s Kamila Valieva competes in the women’s free skating event at the Rostelecom Cup 2021 ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Sochi on November 27, 2021. (Photo by Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP)

Once every four years, the world turns into figure skating fans, and I am definitely among them. Yes, I will admit it, even with my devotion to hockey, I love figure skating. Since I was little, I have been absolutely obsessed with Olympic figure skating. I would watch, my eyes locked to the screen, as these men and women flew across the ice and launched themselves into the air, all to the backdrop of a carefully curated soundtrack. Like many, I was specifically amazed by the Russian ice skaters. They were always so talented and young, making them relatable to me, a kid, when watching. The Russian women dominated and skated so beautifully that I was immediately captivated. It got to the point where I would actively root for Russia in all figure skating events. Those young and talented Russian women who have ruled the Olympics and world for as long as I can remember were trained by esteemed yet controversial trainer Eteri Tutberidze. 

  Tutberidze had trained a whole fleet of champions, all of them achieving great success at a young age before their careers quickly came to an end. As soon as one figure skater is forced to retire, there is a new younger replacement, even better than the first right behind her. First, Yulia Lipnitskaya won team Gold in 2014 at 15 years old; she retired at 19 due to injuries and an eating disorder. Then there was the last Olympics’ projected it-girl Evgenia Medvedeva, she was a two-time world champion and a 2018 Olympic silver medalist. She was severely injured and, at age 22, was no longer able to jump. Last Olympics gold medalist in the women’s figure skating competition, Alina Zagitova, won the gold medal at 15 but stopped competing at 17. Now there is the most recent group of Eteri trainees. All three are Olympic front runners: Anna Scherbakova and Alexandra Trusova, aged 17 and the favorite to win gold, 15-year-old Kamila Valieva. Valieva stunned the world with her perfect Olympic debut like her predecessors before her. So what is the Eteri method? Why do the skaters who train with it wash out so quickly? And most importantly, does its short-term results justify the long-term costs? 

Tutberidze has come under fire from fellow coaches and fans alike for disregarding athletes’ long-term health in favor of winning awards. These skaters have what is referred to as the Eteri expiration date, meaning that by age 17 or 18, the techniques they are taught become unsustainable, and their injuries catch up with them, forcing them to retire. Tutberidze’s methods have been revolutionary, they have mainstreamed quad jumps in women’s figure skating and created champions, but the techniques and styles taught are not sustainable. The quad jumps earn her students immense success in the short term, but while they win gold at 15, they are physically unable to compete at 20. 

Tutberidze is quoted by Insider magazine as saying, “Girls should learn quads young when they are still light and agile.” Which is the crux of her strategy, girls the age of the Eteri trainees have a better strength to weight ratio, allowing them to complete quad and other difficult jumps. The harsh training and strict dietary/weight restrictions that Tutberdize places on her students often delay puberty for a while. These dietary restrictions have high negative costs as many former Eteri students have to retire due to complications from eating disorders. As Tutberidze’s students age and mature, it takes more to complete the jumps. They push themselves to the physical brink risking severe injury to still compete at the same level because the Eteri technique is not designed to be sustainable. That is why many of Tutberidze’s students are forced to retire at such a young age. They are trained to push themselves to the very edge, and then many of them are pushed too far. Medvedeva, a former student of Tutberidze, said that after she started training with a new coach, Canadian Brian Oser, she had to re-learn jumping technique, which shows how faulty the methods Tutberidze are. Medvedeva, at 18, had to learn a new technique because the kind taught to her by Tutberdize was not sustainable as she grew into an adult. Medvedeva returned to Tutberidze because of Covid and eventually had to retire due to a back injury suffered under Tutberidze’s tutelage. 

This year’s group of Russian skaters are called the “Quad Squad” for their abilities to land a quad jump, the cornerstone jump of Tutberidze’s technique. The first woman to ever use a quad jump in competition, Surya Bonaly, supported seeing more women competing with the jump but warned against the long-term costs of quads without the correct technique. Bonaly had to have hip surgery at 25 due to performing these treacherous jumps. She told Insider that “It’s good to win medals, but you don’t want to be traumatized for the rest of your life.” 

Valieva led team ROC to Gold in the team event this year and made history by landing a quad in the Olympics, yet she fell during her routine. Even though the fall did not impact the scoring at all, she appeared devastated. Every one of Tutberidze’s students is expected to be infallible and perfect, so even when they make history, a fall can ruin it all for them. Tutberidze puts them in a pressure cooker, and it causes them all to eventually crack under those unrealistic expectations. It shows how much pressure these skaters are under and explains why they often suffer injuries from going too far to stay competitive. 

Even though her skaters’ competitive window is so tiny, Tutberidze remains revered in the figure skating world. Why? Because she turned the Russian skating program into the powerhouse today. Before Tutberidze, the Russian women did not have the same dominance over the sport of figure skating that they do now. She turned the program into an international force, and that is where the debate comes in. Are long-term injuries and shortened careers worth the wins? 

In the eyes of the country that is bringing home these gold and maybe some athletes, it is worth the risk to win. The Olympics are political in nature; it is about showing off your country’s success, as evidenced in the performance of the athletes your country sends. The Netflix documentary Athlete A focuses on this phenomenon regarding the abusive culture and training of USA gymnastics and the Karolyis. The documentary shows how vicious the Karolyi training program was and how it started back in Romania but was brought to the USA. However, the documentary’s most prominent message is that winning often comes before the Athletes’ well-being every time, especially on the international stage. Could Tutberidze be figuring skating’s equivalent of the Kayrolis? Even if her methods are harmful in the long term, it seems unlikely Tutberidze will change or leave the sport. So long as Russia keeps sending their best and brightest to her and they keep winning competitions, it seems doubtful that the Eteri expiration date or method will disappear. 

The cost of winning is often debated, and in the case of Russia’s dominant women’s figure skating program, it is no different. Eteri Tutberidze has revolutionized figure skating, but that revolution has come at the expense of the longevity of those in her training. Scherbakova, Trusova, and Valieva may sweep the podium, but under Tutberidze’s methods, it seems unlikely that they will even still be competing at the next Olympics. Like those before them, they are destined to be replaced by younger, better skaters once again after they are forced into early retirement. 

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