The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Russian Olympic abuses keep happening. When will child athletes be protected?

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva cries with coaches Eteri Tutberidze and Daniil Gleikhengauz after performing in the Beijing Olympics on Feb. 17. (Phil Noble/Reuters)
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Joan Ryan, a former sportswriter, is the author of “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters” and, most recently, “Intangibles: Unlocking the Science and Soul of Team Chemistry.”

Since a 15-year-old Russian girl named Kamila Valieva was destroyed before our eyes on an Olympic skating rink, there has been the usual uproar. We rail against the coaches who turn girls into disposable, miserable robots. We call for higher age minimums for competitors. We trot out the greatest-hits list of abuses in elite figure skating (issues that also overlap with gymnastics): anorexia, bulimia, debilitating injuries, pressure, burnout, body-shaming, painkillers, suicide attempts.

We already know the price these girls pay for a shot at the Olympics. We have known for decades.

It has been 25 years since my book “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes” exposed the physical and psychological abuse in elite figure skating and gymnastics. The outrage it sparked was short-lived. Instead, we continue to rehash the same talking points. The sports’ international governing bodies continue to do nothing. And the broken bodies of young girls continue to stack up along the well-worn path toward Olympic glory.

The question is: How much longer will we enable this systematic destruction of child athletes? It is the great disgrace of modern sports.

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Yes, this latest episode was especially gruesome. Valieva had been the strong favorite to win gold when she found herself at the center of a doping scandal. Given Russia’s long history of doping its athletes, Valieva likely knew little or nothing about the banned substance she ingested. Still, the media attention and pressure landed on her, with the result that the usually flawless Valieva crumbled, stumbling several times and falling twice in her free-skate program. When it was over, she sobbed a child’s sobs.

The tragedy of this situation is that we’ve seen it so many times: A girl not much past toddler age is plucked from the masses as a child with potential. The adults around her know the pain, pressure and degradation waiting for her. She doesn’t.

The United States has been no model of health and well-being for elite child athletes over the years. But there has been progress, accelerated in 2018 by the army of survivors who came forward during the trial of USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, who admitted to sexually abusing more than 250 girls and young women.

Russia seems to see nothing wrong with its destructive, despotic system. Eteri Tutberidze, the brutish taskmaster of all three Russian skaters at these Olympics, greeted the distraught Valieva after her disastrous free skate with these words: “Why did you let it go? Why did you stop fighting? Explain it to me, why?” Imagine what she’s like behind closed doors if she’s that cold in public. The notorious gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi at least had the sense to give hugs when the cameras were rolling.

Tutberidze’s other skaters also showed the fault lines of a lifetime of subjugation and crushing pressure. Silver medalist Alexandra Trusova fell apart in the “kiss and cry” area when she didn’t win gold, crying out that she hated skating. Gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova, holding a stuffed toy, wandered about alone, joyless, as her entourage focused on other skaters.

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The time is long, long past for half-measures. What is happening in Russia is child abuse, plain and simple. Reports have emerged from Tutberidze’s training rink in Moscow that the coach subjects skaters to 12-hour training sessions and daily weigh-ins; gives them medication that blocks estrogen so they don’t go through puberty; and withholds water during competitions. Yulia Lipnitskaya, who won the 2014 Olympic gold at age 15, later told reporters she had been suffering from anorexia for more than three years.

Despite a 2019 ban against Russia for its state-sponsored doping scheme, the International Olympic Committee has allowed Russian athletes to compete as the Russian Olympic Committee, as if the name confers newfound virtue. It’s a travesty that has enabled the continued destruction of young lives.

Russia — like any country that abuses child athletes — should be banned from competing in the Olympics in any capacity until it changes its training methods. This means opening facilities to frequent and comprehensive inspection by child protective services provided by an international organization.

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It took a sexual abuse scandal of epic proportions to finally force the beginning of real change in our country, though there is still much work to do. The gymnasts themselves have been the catalysts. “We are here,” Olympian Aly Raisman said in her victim statement in 2018. “We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”

Those young Russian skaters had no voice.

Will we remember what happened to Valieva after the athletes leave Beijing, or when summer rolls around? The truth is we rarely ask what has become of these competitors when they disappear from televised view, perhaps because we know they’ll be back, popping up like the tiny ballerina in a child’s jewelry box, spinning on cue.

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