Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow
Russia’s figure skating success has made its skaters a model for young female athletes in the sport to imitate. But relying on tiny, young female skaters as the model for success may threaten the mental health of other elite competitors on the international stage.
Figure skating is a sport that blends athleticism with artistry, but as an image-driven sport, weight is a sensitive topic. While female skaters strive for a body type that allows them to perform difficult jumps and spins, they are also pressured to maintain a petite figure for aesthetic appearance.
Under the current scoring system, skaters are rewarded on a high risk, high reward premise.
While numerical values are attached to every element of the performance, skaters earn most of these points by landing extravagant jumps. The most difficult jump, the “quad”, requires a skater to complete four revolutions while in the air.
Since 2019, or what commentators dub the “quad era”, it has become increasingly difficult for female skaters to remain competitive on the international stage without a quad in their repertoire.
Once a girl hits puberty, it becomes more challenging to complete more difficult jumps as female bodies naturally begin to carry more fat. When a skater loses height in her jumps, her first response is to lose weight instead of addressing her strength or technique.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that the International Skating Union (ISU) allows female skaters to begin competing at the senior level from age 15.
As a result, young female skaters are often in a race against time to compete at the highest level before they reach puberty.
This problem is particularly acute in Russia.
In Russia’s centralised training system, where coaches hold authoritative power and often bypass the advice of doctors and nutritionists, young female skaters risk their health to perform challenging jumps.
The two-time world champion and Olympic silver medallist, Evgenia Medvedeva, recalled that she “lived half-starving” while training at the much-admired Sambo-70 Russian training camp in the lead up to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze disclosed in an interview that 15-year-old, 2014 Olympic champion Yulia Lipnitskaya, during the training season often relied entirely on a diet of “powdered nutrients.” Two years after the Olympics, Yulia retired and began treatment for anorexia.
The reigning Olympic and world champion from Russia, Alina Zagitova, directly associates weight loss with the ability to jump a quad. In an interview in which she discussed her plans to incorporate the quad in her routine, at age 17 she said, “I will need to prepare for them physically and mentally. I will also need to lose some weight, something like 3kg, to decrease the risk of injuries.”
Even though it is well known that eating disorders shorten the careers of athletes, it is difficult for coaches and figure skating federations to take measures in addressing these disorders when results are achieved.
For nearly three decades, Russia’s female skaters have been at the forefront of female figure skating, winning gold at the 2014 and 2018 Winter Olympics, and winning four of the last five World Championships.
Russia’s success puts enormous pressure on other elite competitors on the international stage.
Japan's Akiko Suzuki revealed a diagnosis of anorexia in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, after she lost nearly a third of her body weight in two months; US figure skating champion Gracie Gold spoke of “eating one meal a day after training for hours” at the height of her career, withdrawing from competition to treat an eating disorder; and Canadian 2017 World bronze medallist and two-time Olympian, Gabrielle Daleman reported she would “write down the calories … then burn double it.”
While there are no clear statistics on eating disorders in figure skating, former US skater Jenny Kirk estimates that 85 per cent of skaters (female and male) have suffered or are suffering from various forms of eating disorders.
Despite an unprecedented awareness of mental health within the skating community, skating officials have yet to come to terms with exactly what the increasing difficulty of jumps means for the health of female athletes.
Some skaters are now calling for ISU to raise the minimum age of female skaters. Others are demanding that difficult jumps be limited and the points awarded for them lowered.
Unless the ISU makes Russia accountable for the health of its athletes, the success of Russia’s young female skaters will continue to have an impact on the mental health of female athletes of the sport, fuelling eating disorders that are tragically the price these young women pay to compete on the international stage.
In response to the changing demands of female figure skating, the ISU should penalise Russia’s reliance on tiny, young female skaters and aim to foster a culture that focuses on the sustainability of female athletic health.
Only once the pressure on female skaters to peak before puberty is lifted, can they then take the necessary steps to prepare and adapt to the changes that come with womanhood.
Erin Jory is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.