AP

European Championships analysis: Female Russian skaters stars rise fast, but burn out too soon

Leave a comment

Jean-Christophe Berlot is on the ground in Minsk, Belarus to cover the European Championships. This is his analysis of the pace and progression of women’s skating around the world.

Eteri Tutberidze, the renowned Russian coach, declined all interviews in Minsk, Belarus, the setting for the 2019 European Championships. The organization of the practice and main rinks made it possible for coaches to have no interaction at all with journalists during the week. Tutberidze could not be seen in the mixed zones, and she could flee the practice rink through underground paths that were not open to the press.

“I don’t know what I could say,” she politely answered when an interview request was made.

The same was true for Alina Zagitova, her star pupil. Zagitova, the Olympic champion, lost her 2018 European crown to Russian Sofia Samodurova.

Tutberidze was nonetheless quite a disputed behind-the-scenes topic in Minsk.

“The problem is that Eteri is very much criticized in Russia at the moment,” a noted Russian journalist explained. “People think that she pushes her pupils at a very young age and after a year or two they are done for the sport.”

True – Russian skating has been characterized by a never-seen turnover of its female wunderkinds in the recent years: Yulia Lipnitskaya was an instant star in 2014 and disappeared; Adelina Sotnikova won her Olympic gold and turned to other endeavors.

Yevgenia Medvedeva could have had the same fortune, had she not decided to move to Canada. The perspective of seeing Zagitova disappear can’t be discarded. And many more lesser known skaters left the radar as well.

The system has best demonstrated its nonsense at Russian nationals, one month ago, as the top three at the senior championship were not even allowed to compete on the senior level internationally. Skaters placed fourth, fifth, and sixth at Nationals were selected for these Europeans, namely Samodurova, Zagitova and Stanislava Konstantinova.

Tutberidze is far from being the sole responsible of what could be called the “Kleenex syndrome” of female skating – you take one, use it, and then throw it.

The turmoil is even amplified in Russia by the tons of hate messages that flood each day on social media. The phenomenon is far from being mastered, especially since most messages are written anonymously under a pseudonym. They destabilize the best skaters.

“I don’t want to read those criticisms, but they are actually there, as toxic as they are,” Maria Sotskova, a prominent skater until last year, explained. “Athletes shouldn’t read internet comments. They make you more nervous and make you lose some of your confidence.”

Medvedeva had to make strong decisions a few months ago: “I never expected that there would be so much negative on social media, so I’ve made a strong rule between social networks and me,” she told NBCSports at her French Grand Prix outing two months ago. “The connection with social media is running through my agent, and I’m not using it anymore.”

She has since made a reappearance on social platforms, but to a lesser extent than the past.

Zagitova had to come to a complete black-out as well.

“After Russian nationals, my parents took away my phone and gave me another one, with no access to the internet,” she said to media in Minsk. “Now I’m reading books and I’m studying for school. I don’t see or hear anything about what is being said. No social media. I only watch TV serials.”

More than any other country, Russia has created somewhat of a system – mostly unconsciously at the start, however: create the best jumpers and spinners of the world at a very young age, when children obey without condition, and make them win before puberty. Hence the proposal to raise the age limit that was presented to the last ISU Congress.

It was rejected.

Age may not be the key factor anyway, as every girl grows at her own pace. It also differs from one continent to the next.

“The Causasian and the Asian people are quite different,” Japanese coach Mie Hamada acknowledged a few years ago. “The Caucasian bodies do change much more dramatically than the Asians’. We do have body changes, but they are not as big.”

She cited one of her star students, Satoko Miyahara, as a good example: “Satoko’s body is changing, but she works very hard every day and she can reset and adjust day after day to the change. I don’t have any trouble there.”

The system is expanding fast. In Japan, new star Rika Kihira, who won every competition she entered at her first senior year (and is coached by Hamada), has three triple Axels planned in each of her outings.

Alysa Liu, the new U.S. national champion, is on par with Kihira – except she doesn’t have the age limit to compete in the senior ranks. This age limit is in itself a tough constraint on skaters and their coach; the shooting window in a skater’s life is quite short, as it ranges between that age limit and puberty. Having an Olympics take place at that precise moment helps.

How long will these young ladies keep landing their triple Axel remains to be seen.

“You have the choice,” offered Igor Samohin, coach and father of 2016 world junior champion Daniel Samohin. “Either you push them right away to do everything, but then they will have a short skating life. Or you opt for a long career and, as Brian Orser says, you go step by step. At the same time, can a coach, a parent, a federation accept to take the risk of taking time and going step by step, knowing there is an additional risk at puberty?”

Examples of wunderkinds embarking into a long-term career do exist: Michelle Kwan and Irina Slutskaya, in the late 1990s, both won at a tender age and did succeed in staying many years at the top. As did Mao Asada. In those days as well as throughout the whole skating saga, the younger skaters were there to learn and grow, not to shine all at once and disappear, with the risk of mental health problems, disordered eating and depressions that spread out recently.

Samodurova and Konstantinova, the most physically mature of the Russian squad in Minsk, stated firmly that they were there to last in the sport.

Some common answers in Minsk were clear-cut: “This is sport. The wheel has to turn, and it’s just turning faster.”

If this is the route, then what sense does the age limit to access the senior ranks make?

Yet how does skating as a whole benefit from the Kleenex syndrome? The 2015 and 2016 Worlds gold medalist, Javier Fernandez, was clear, it’s penalizing skating: “Why would you come to watch a competition, if after just a few years a skater you had enjoyed watching doesn’t even compete anymore?” he asked.

The Kleenex route nonetheless seems to be favored nowadays. The embroidered tissue becomes the exception, at least in the ladies’ field. For sure the show will be quite different from what we have known it in the past.

The challenge for the best coaches of the world is to find a way to develop the Kwans and the Katarina Witts of tomorrow. Knowing Tutberidze enough, we may be confident that she is striving to do so.

MORE: Behind the scenes on Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 at the European Championships

As a reminder, you can watch the European Championships live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

IOC group proposes Olympic ‘host’ can be multiple countries

Getty Images
Leave a comment

International Olympic Committee members will decide next month whether to tweak the definition of an Olympic host to make it clear that it does not necessarily refer to a single city but can also mean multiple cities, regions and even countries, IOC President Thomas Bach said Wednesday.

“It’s not an encouragement to spread the Games out as much as possible,” Bach said in announcing the IOC’s executive board approved the measure. “It may be preferable to have a region as a signatory or an additional signatory of the host city contract rather than just a city, and therefore, we wanted to enjoy this flexibility. This, on the other hand, does not change our vision, our request and our focus on having not only an Olympic Village, but to have an Olympic center.”

It’s one of six proposed changes by a working group chaired by Australian IOC member John Coates to examine the bid process. Another is to make the timing of Olympic host city elections more flexible. Typically, hosts are elected seven years before the Games, though two years ago an exception was made in the double awarding of the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles.

Bach repeated that the proposals are “to avoid producing too many losers as we had it in the past candidature procedures.”

The IOC previously said in 2014, in announcing Agenda 2020, that it “will allow events held outside the host city or, in exceptional cases, outside the host country, notably for reasons of geography and sustainability.”

This shift manifests in Stockholm’s 2026 Winter Olympic bid plan to have sliding sports in Sigulda, Latvia, home of the nearest existing track for bobsled, luge and skeleton, rather than building a costly new track in Sweden.

IOC members will vote to choose the 2026 Winter Games host next month. The finalists are Stockholm and a joint Italian bid of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, after five other potential candidates were dropped for various reasons.

There is precedent for events held far from the Olympic host city. In 1956, Melbourne held the Summer Games and had equestrian events in Stockholm due to quarantine laws in Australia. Similarly, equestrian at the 2008 Beijing Games was held in Hong Kong.

Soccer matches are often held in cities across the host country. Recent Winter Olympics have had mountain events in a different city or area than arena events.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Matthew Boling, high school sprint phenom, chooses summer meets

IOC board recommends AIBA suspension, boxing stays in Olympics

AP
Leave a comment

The International Olympic Committee executive board recommended that AIBA has its recognition as boxing’s international federation suspended but that the sport remains on the Olympic program at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

An IOC decision on the recommendation will be made next month. The IOC created a group to organize 2020 Olympic boxing qualifying and competition if AIBA will not be allowed to run it.

“We want to ensure that the athletes can live their dream and participate in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 while drawing the necessary consequences for AIBA,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a press release. “At the same time, we offer a pathway back to lifting the suspension, but there needs to be further fundamental change.”

The IOC said in October that boxing’s place in the Olympics was “under threat” after being introduced at the 1904 St. Louis Games and held at every Games since except Stockholm 1912.

In November, the IOC ordered an inquiry into AIBA, which has been in financial turmoil, faced claims of fixed bouts at the Rio Games and elected a president linked to organized crime.

That president, Uzbek Gafur Rakhimov, stepped aside in March to let an interim leader take charge but said he was not resigning. Rakhimov is on a U.S. Treasury Department sanctions list for suspected links to an organized crime group in former Soviet Union republics involved in heroin trafficking. He denies any wrongdoing.

“Serious governance issues remain, including breaches of the Olympic Charter and the IOC Code of Ethics regarding good governance and ethics, leading to serious reputational, legal and financial risks for the IOC, the Olympic Movement and its stakeholders,” the inquiry committee concluded. “AIBA has been unable to demonstrate a sustainable and fair management of refereeing and judging processes and decisions, increasing the lack of confidence that athletes can have in fair competitions.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!

MORE: Matthew Boling, high school sprint phenom, chooses summer meets