Yulia Lipnitskaya

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

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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.

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ISU’s Junior Grand Prix free live streams boost figure skating views around the world

Alexandra Trusova (RUS) 2018 ©International Skating Union (ISU)
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Hi, Ted,

I’m Laura from Peru. I like figure skating so much; perhaps it’s not very popular in my country. I wanted to thank you for your comments on the events. They are very useful for people like me who just started to follow this sport.

–Email sent to Ted Barton during one of this season’s Junior Grand Prix events

 

Laura Quinto Castro spent her childhood in Tarma, a city at 10,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, where there was no ice rink. When Quinto Castro moved 150 miles west to coastal Lima, at age 11, she found what had been the lone permanent rink in her country, but that facility now has become itinerant in Peru’s capital for lack of funding.

Quinto Castro, 27, still managed to develop a strong attraction to figure skating by watching ESPN Latin America’s telecast of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Like many people worldwide, she was mesmerized by the exploits of 15-year-old Russian Yulia Lipnitskaya. A couple years later, Quinto Castro wondered what had happened to Lipnitskaya, the darling of the Sochi Winter Games.

So Quinto Castro began searching YouTube, which recommends videos based on the subject of the searches. One day, a video from the International Skating Union’s Junior Grand Prix Skating Channel on YouTube popped up. She subscribed to the channel and found that it does streams of the JGP competitions that are available free and live throughout the world everywhere but Japan and South Korea, where TV networks have bought rights to the junior events.

Quinto Castro, a one-time roller skater, now is among the 66,754 subscribers to the channel, which will do its final live broadcasts of this season from the Junior Grand Prix Final Thursday through Saturday in Vancouver. Twelve-month streaming data (August-to-August) of Junior Grand Prix events on the YouTube channel, both live and archived, show viewer hits grew from 3.1 million for 2014-15 to 14.1 million for 2017-18 and could reach 15 million in 2018-19. The totals increase as people watch archived video.

Viewers to date this season have come from 83 countries. And Peru, which is not an ISU member country, is just one of the unlikely places where people are watching.

“We’re very proud of bringing the sport to countries where people could never have seen it,” said Ted Barton, the Canadian who does commentary on the streams.

Ted Barton interviews U.S. ice dancers Rachel & Michael Parsons after their win at 2015 JPG in Bratislava, Slovakia. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

Barton has asked viewers to send him their comments and suggestions via an email address given verbally and shown on the live streams. Quinto Castro was among those who responded. Other emails came from Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran (“A very odd country for figure skating world, but we do love figure skating. Though we are not member nation of ISU, we have quite great figure skaters at our tiny rink in Tehran!”) and Brazil, where a 15-year-old named Camila wrote:

“I’m watching the JGP stream now, thinking ’bout how I’d like to be a figure skater myself, but, living in Brazil, there’s not really much hope for that. Still, I really love the sport, and watching it makes me just so happy. I wonder if other people out there feel like me.”

That others clearly do is reflected in the viewership statistics. Half the views come from Russia, whose young women have dominated junior singles for several years, and Japan, which has both top junior singles skaters and the most popular active skater in the world, two-time Olympic men’s champion Yuzuru Hanyu.

“We always believed it was going to be a successful project,” said Selina Vanier, the ISU Communication & Media Manager. “The more visibility we give the sport, the better it is.”

(The ISU also streams its senior events, but those are geo-blocked in the countries with TV rights-holders, which means most of the world. Some of those broadcasts are free over-the-air, but many require a paid cable or streaming service subscription, such as the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold, which will give its subscribers live streams of the entire senior Grand Prix Final competition this week.)

MORE: How to watch the Grand Prix Final

While the junior numbers remain decidedly modest by comparison with other sports, they nevertheless reflect substantial intangible value on an ISU annual investment believed to be around $450,000. (The ISU declined to give an exact figure for JGP stream funding, part of the ISU Council’s projects budget, which was $3.2 million in 2017.) It is unimportant that the ISU revenue from the YouTube hits amounts to nickels and dimes at this point.

For a sport increasingly challenged by its viewer demographics (largely older) and competition from other forms of entertainment, the venture can be called a success, especially as a way to engage the generations who consume much of their entertainment on mobile phones.

“The streaming aspect is critically important to reach not only new fans but a younger demographic,” said Ramsey Baker, U.S. Figure Skating’s chief marketing officer. “That aspect alone makes it worth the investment.

“The Junior Grand Prix is a nice starting point for someone to get into watching the sport. And it provides the ISU with data that can help them develop media partners in new territories.”

Caitlyn Chen, vice-president of Chinese digital media colossus Tencent (an ISU rights-holder in China), told an International Basketball Federation summit this fall that market research showed of the 160 million Chinese born between 2000 and 2010, over 70 percent “say they are following closely at least one sport. From this, we can see they are not just using phones or smart media to play games.”

For the world’s hard-core skating fans, the free Junior Grand Prix streams are manna from heaven, especially because Barton is a big part of feeding their appetite.

It is fitting that Barton has an integral role – if, by his own estimation, an improbable one – in the success of the project.

Barton, 64, a native New Zealander who moved to British Columbia, was Canada’s national junior men’s singles champion in 1973 and finished 16th at senior worlds in 1976. Beginning in 2002, when the ISU began implementing a new judging system in reaction to the Salt Lake Olympics pairs judging controversy, Barton was involved in implanting the video replay that became a key part of the new system.

When U.S. Figure Skating created icenetwork in 2007, it realized the video replay camera used at competitions could serve another purpose: providing the content from the sectional, regional and national (junior and below) events it wanted to stream to icenetwork subscribers. Baker said there eventually were discussions among ISU officials about ways the international federation could use the video footage from its replay camera at ISU events, and that led in 2011 to the first Junior Grand Prix streams, which used a single camera.

“Live streaming was still knives and bearskins at that point,” said Rob Dustin, a longtime figure skating producer on various platforms.

In the 2013 season, the ISU had 1.5 million YouTube views of the rudimentary streams, according to Dustin. At that point, the ISU hired him and his company, Red Brick Entertainment, to provide a real production using five or six cameras but keeping costs down with what he calls a “high-speed, low-drag approach” that includes just four or five production people at an event. One big cost saving comes from being able to process and encode the stream on site and doing it without paying what Dustin said would be $150,000 for a “legacy” broadcast replay system.

The coverage includes every skater in every Junior Grand Prix event, not just the elite shown in many network broadcasts of senior competitions. That can mean two dozen skaters in men’s and women’s singles, but it guarantees fans in, say, Indonesia, will see their nation’s lone competitor. For those who want to watch only that athlete, Dustin and his team provide that individual video within minutes of the skater’s group having finished.

“The ISU wanted us to be the voice of those skaters,” Dustin said. “The ISU is doing this for exposure, not for revenue.”

Best of all, the coverage has been reliable: by Dustin’s count, the JGP live stream has been down for less than an hour in approximately 1,000 hours of streaming over the past five seasons.

The Red Brick Entertainment Junior Grand Prix crew visiting Moscow’s Red Square before heading to a 2017 JPG event in Saransk, Russia. Left to right are cameraman / editor Austin Boylen, digital specialist Alex Metzman, director Tom Wherle, cameraman / editor Tim O’Laughlin, executive producer Rob Dustin and commentator Ted Barton. (Courtesy Rob Dustin)

From viewers’ standpoint, the best thing Dustin did was to bring on Barton as commentator, no matter that he had no training or experience for the role. (His real job is executive director of Skate Canada British Columbia / Yukon.)

“I was without question horrible at the beginning,” Barton wrote in an email Monday. “I hated doing it (at first) but knew if the streaming was to be successful, I had to make it something different – but most importantly something people would respect and maybe even learn some small details from.”

What Barton brought to the table was in-depth knowledge of the judging and scoring systems, a refusal to make himself the center of attention and a decision to comment honestly but not disparagingly about the skaters. He talks only during the replays, which he chooses, and his restraint is noticeable: even a history-making successful quadruple Lutz by 14-year-old Russian Alexandra Trusova this season, first by a woman in international competition, did not bring a verbal exclamation point from Barton but rather a simple acknowledgement of the jump having been fully rotated.

“People would very quick to criticize the ISU if I did what everyone else does and speak too much,” Barton said. “So, I decided there would be no commentary during the performance. I wanted to be respectful of the work of the skater and coach/choreographer and… reserve thoughts/opinions to after the performance.”

He then prefers to explain technical reasons for mistakes rather than to focus on how badly the mistakes damage a performance.

“Ted has a different way of looking at a skater who has gone ker-splat,” Dustin said.

So this is what Barton had to say after Marina Asoyan of Armenia, in her international competition debut at age 15, fell three times and had just one positive grade for 11 elements in the free skate at the Junior Grand Prix in Armenia:

“Marina wanted so badly to skate well in front of her hometown fans. Maybe she was just a little too excited… You could see her disappointment at the end of the program… There’s the double loop (a fall), and she’s not on top of her feet at all… It was just one of those frustrating times when nothing seems to go right.”

Figure skating fans generally favor such a kid-gloves approach to commentary, especially where a young and/or inexperienced athlete is involved. (Barton is more self-critical, promising to improve his sometimes-botched pronunciations of names.) And many fans complain vociferously on social media about commentators who talk throughout the performance.

“When I began to see the emotion, both positive and negative, on the faces of these young skaters I then knew I had to support their successes and help them through their failures,” Barton wrote. “Just be honest but sensitive in the delivery and encouraging in some solutions.

“I know what parents go through emotionally just watching their sons and daughters perform, let alone what they (the skaters) have to deal with on social media, so I wanted to try and be a voice of reason and encouragement. I would say for the most part we have been successful.”

The vituperation on social media, even where juniors are involved, reached the point where it was decided before this season to turn off the live chat during streaming on the YouTube site.

MORE: Yevgenia Medvedeva responds to social media criticism

The skaters speak for themselves in post-competition interviews, some requested specifically by the rights-holders in Japan and South Korea. It is a sort of informal media training for what may lie ahead at the senior level, and it introduces their personalities to viewers.

It also fuels the interest of viewers like Quinto Castro, who said in a recent email to me that she has become “a big fan of the Russian ladies” while following the junior events since the 2016-17 season, and she wishes she did not need a cable subscription to watch more senior events live. (Peru – and every South American country but Brazil and Guyana – falls under ESPN’s rights agreement for South America.) Exposure cannot always trump revenue, and rights-holders want a return on their investment.

At least it is easier to watch figure skating in Peru than to practice it.

“In the future, I would like to go live in another country and try to do figure skating for adults,” Quinto Castro wrote.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series 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.

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MORE: Nathan Chen may need to ante up at Grand Prix Final

Yulia Lipnitskaya details retirement, anorexia

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Yulia Lipnitskaya, the darling figure skater of the Sochi Olympics, said she hasn’t seen her skates since November and spent a long time in an Israel health clinic to treat health problems before retiring.

Lipnitskaya, who won team event gold in Sochi at age 15, retired following a three-month treatment for anorexia, it was first reported in August.

“Anorexia is a disease of the 21st century, it occurs quite often,” Lipnitskaya said in an interview published by the Russian Figure Skating Federation, according to a translation. “Unfortunately, not everyone overcomes it. I’ve considered that there was nothing bad if I’d openly speak about it. I only regret that I did not do this earlier, because this is not the first year this has been going on, nor the second or third year.”

Lipnitskaya struggled after becoming the youngest Olympic figure skating champion since 1936 and winning a world silver medal the following month.

In fact, she said in the interview published Tuesday that she wanted to try ice dancing after Sochi. That didn’t happen.

Staying in singles, she was ninth and seventh at the next two Russian Championships and ended her career at the Rostelecom Cup in November, finishing in last place.

“I came home, put my skates in the closet, and I have not seen them since,” she said, according to the translation. “I’m no longer attracted to the ice. In January, I left for the clinic. That’s the whole story.”

Lipnitskaya said that while she was in the Israel clinic, her phone was stolen. She purchased a new phone, but she only knew one person’s phone number by heart — her mom.

When Lipnitskaya returned home from the clinic, she and her mom decided together that she would retire.

Non-competitive ice shows have made her offers, but Lipnitskaya said she has no desire to participate in them. Her mind may change, but for now she is focused on enrolling in a university.

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MORE: Sochi Olympic figure skating champion won’t defend title