Kamila Valieva – A case of abuse?
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Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva’s recent doping scandal highlights the lack of child safeguarding measures and irreversible harm being done to minors in elite sport.

On 7 February, Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old figure skating prodigy representing the Russian Olympic Committee at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, completed a quadruple jump, becoming the first woman to do so at an Olympics. Two days later, on 9 February, the Russian media reported that she had failed a drug test before the Games commenced.

The skater’s routine sample, sent after winning the Russian Nationals in December 2021, tested positive for trimetazidine, a drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). Trimetazidine, often used by patients with heart conditions, can help increase the performance and endurance of the heart in healthy people. WADA categorises trimetazidine as a hormone and metabolic modulator, and it is illegal for athletes to use the drug in and out of competitions.

On 15 February, the New York Times reported that Valieva had tested positive for two other drugs which are not banned – hypoxen and L-carnitine. Her legal team stated that she took the medicine after an accidental mix-up with her grandfather’s medication, though some have questioned the credibility of this reasoning. 

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has allowed Valieva to continue competing at the Beijing Olympics while further investigations are carried out, against appeals made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), WADA and the International Skating Union (ISU) to disqualify the athlete. In their decision, the CAS emphasised Valieva’s “protected persons” status under the World Anti-Doping Code, since she is a minor and under the age of 16.

While many are concerned about the fairness and equity of allowing Valieva to continue to compete, this case highlights the issue of child safeguarding in sport. Regardless of the results of the further investigations being carried out in this case, authorities should be concerned about the pressures of competitive sport on a 15-year-old and the failure of the adults in Valieva’s life, including her coach and parents, to ensure her safety.

Child abuse in figure skating

Valieva’s coach is the famous Russian figure skater and coach Eteri Tutberidze, whose students have gone on to win many medals, but who has also been accused of abusive coaching practices, including diet restrictions and over-training. Many of her award-winning students have had to retire quite early from the sport citing major injuries. These include Evgenia Medvedeva, a 2018 Olympic silver medallist, and Elizabet Tursynbaeva, a 2019 World Championship silver medallist. Both have had to retire after severe back injuries.

After Valieva fell in the women’s event on 18 February, Tutberidze responded in an apparently “cold” and “chilling” manner, not comforting the 15-year-old, but rather dismissing her for not trying hard enough. While many have noted this apparent abuse, few said anything about the abuse during Valieva’s doping scandal earlier this month or in the previous years when others have pointed to possible abuse – instead, Tutberidze has been awarded for her coaching by the ISU and the Russian government.

The fault is not only with the Russian coach, however. It is a similar story that many figure skaters face around the world – Singapore’s Jessica Yu and USA’s Gracie Gold have both spoken up about the physical, verbal and psychological abuse they suffered as figure skaters.

Child abuse in other sports

In fact, it isn’t even just about figure skating – similar issues have been witnessed by gymnasts and others in “aesthetic sports”. Though abuse is not limited to any sport, in figure skating and gymnastics, where smaller, thinner and lighter bodies are more agile and preferred in competitions, athletes often fall into eating disorders and other abusive practices, often encouraged by authority figures.

Further, this focus on needing smaller bodies means that more and more younger athletes are being recruited into these sports and pushed into high pressure international competitions at a young age. Abusive practices such as eating disorders and over-training are particularly harmful for younger athletes as they then have a higher chance of sustaining injuries.

Who is responsible?

Children participating in these sports are vulnerable, given that they are minors. They often defer to authority figures in their lives, such as their coaches, parents and guardians. It is, thus, the responsibility of these adults to ensure the safety of these children is prioritised.

Yet, as the Valieva case illustrates, children’s safety is often disregarded in the pursuit of athleticism, in decisions made by coaches, parents and guardians. The abuse is particularly directed towards young female athletes in these sports, who are seen as disposable and replaceable by coaches and sport federations.

It is not a new phenomenon – young athletes have spoken out about being verbally, physically, psychologically and sexually abused by coaches, doctors and other authority figures during their careers, with many being subjected to this abuse while they were minors. These abuses have been documented for decades, and, as the recent US Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal exposed, have been covered up by the authorities and sport federations.

To ensure that child safeguarding is prioritised in sport, federations and related sporting authorities must ensure strict child safeguarding laws and practices are put in place and followed. Valieva’s case lays bare the harm being done to children in the name of sporting excellence, and the need for comprehensive policies, education, and training to ensure that children’s safety is always put first.


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