Content Warning: Mentions abuse in aesthetic sports, mentions harm done by Larry Nassar
It's been almost two years since the 2022 Winter Olympics Bejing when Kamila Valieva 'committed an anti-doping rule violation.' Two things have been done since then:
The Court for Arbitration of Sport has officially ruled that Valieva will be suspended from international competition through December 2025. This also disqualifies all competitions where Valieva medaled beginning in December 2021 (Mann, 2024).
The International Skating Union approved raising the age minimum from fifteen to seventeen for Olympic-level competitions prior to the 2026 Winter Games (Olympic Talk, 2022). Raising the age of competing in international competitions is to protect the physical, mental and emotional health of our athletes (Olympic Talk, 2022).
However, doing all of these things do not get to the core issues at place: people in power are feeding a corrupt system that thrives on the exploitation of young children.
At the time of the Olympics, Valieva was a 15-year-old girl - an individual that deserves sympathy. When it comes down to it, doping a child is unforgivable and she has been put in this place as a part of Russia's well-documented sports doping system (Mann, 2024).
The age of majority under Russian Law is eighteen. Any individual under the age of 18 is considered a minor. Therefore the doping of a 15 year old falls on the adults in her life, not the child. The World Anti-Doping Agency also issued a strongly-worded statement that calling for full accountability for sports officials, doctors and coaches in Russia. They also encourage governments to consider passing legislation making doping minors a criminal offence (Mann, 2024).
A History of Exploitation of Young Children
Karen Chen, who finished 16th at the women’s event at the 2022 Beijing Games, explains how she is a completely different person at 22 than she was at 15 or 16. She states that, “I don’t know if robot is the right word, but my coaches would tell me to go do something and I’d do it,” (Macur, 2022). The word ‘robots’ sends of blaring red flags.
Survivors of predator Larry Nassar, who molested hundreds of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment, described themselves as robots who did what they were told, too scared to question authority when being abused, and turned into machines controlled by adults. Rachael Denhollander, the first to publicly accuse Nassar, explains that raising the age in figure skating may be a piece of the puzzle, but that older, more mature skaters may still face abuse by being forced to remain as small and thin as 15-year-olds. This is largely because young athletes in figure skating peak in their mid-teens, before their bodies fully mature. There is a race against the biological clock for so many athletes. Denhollander explains how raising the age may simply be extending the abusive system for a few more years:
“We need to be on guard for individuals and entities who are going to make raising the age minimum sound like an easy fix because they don’t want to dismantle the system and get rid of the people in power who are feeding the system. That requires much more work and complete restructuring and people don’t want to do that work," (Macur, 2022).
It is no doubt that raising the age may be a piece of this puzzle, however our sporting systems need a complete overhaul in their priorities and to ramp down on those who do harm. Gracie Gold, an Olympian vocal about mental health awareness in sports, writes how as long as gold medals and Olympic berths are considered paradigm of achievement, it’s going to be difficult to enact meaningful change. She writes:
"Today, Russia and the various organizations that have enabled its unfair practices for at least a decade have put us in a tough spot. To keep pace, the United States has to figure out how to implement a legal version of Russia’s doping methods while pushing our skaters by keeping them on the ice for hours on end, starting with they’re tiny tots – when they’re light and fearless and eager to please the adults in their midst – to learn the difficult skills and risk them having broken-down bodies and souls by the time they turn 17. Is this really the price for glory we’re willing to pay?" (Gold, 2022).
With a price so high, it is crystal clear that something is not working. We must collectively and systemically recognize that the health and wellbeing of our athletes are more important than a medal around their neck.
Wanting results such as medals and money is not “bad.” However, the results-driven climate makes it easy for performance to trump the welfare of those involved in the sport and how athlete can become constructed as objects to fulfill the needs of multiple others (i.e., coaches, parents, national sports organizations, sponsors; Lang, 2021).
Raising the age will result in some individuals going to great lengths to find new ways to postpone normal adolescent growth to maintain elements until they are eligible to compete internationally (i.e., doping, extreme dietary restriction, ramping up on training). Raising the age does not actually crack down on systems in place that do harm or the specific individuals that have ongoing access to our youth simply because they are valuable assets to the sporting community, have a reputation to uphold, monetary funds to bring in, and a nation to represent (Lang, 2021).
This is not to say that are aren't amazing coaches, support staff, and people in leadership positions out there. There are many people out that have their athlete's welfare in mind. The ongoing tolerance of abuse, both domestically and internationally, creates a ripple effect in our skating community and communicates that there is tolerance for maltreatment of our youth.
According to researchers, the reason we have lacked to progress on eliminating abuse in sport is in part by our too-narrow focus on the rogue individuals (Roberts & Sojo, 2020). Our focusing on the ‘bad apples’ results the failure to consider the role and responsibility of sport organizations and systems. We need to address the bad barrel the apples are in, as well as the individual bad apples.
Ultimately the answer is a long-term, whole-of-industry approach to remedy structural and cultural drivers (Roberts & Sojo, 2020). But that takes time, training for key stakeholders, and enormous effort.
In other words, we need a full blown surgical procedure, not just a bandaid.
Are you interested in reading more about how we can change our sports to make them safer for our youth and adult athletes?
Check out Promoting Athlete Welfare in Aesthetic Sports: Recommendations for Organizations, Coaches, Athletes, and their Loved Ones
Gold, G. (2022, February 17). Stop Asking Why America Doesn’t Win Olympic Medals in Women’s-Singles Skating. The Cut. https://www.thecut.com/2022/02/america-olympic-medals-womens-singles-skating.html
Lang, M. (2021). Routledge handbook of athlete welfare. Routledge.
Macur, J. (2022, February 18). After a Disturbing Night, Concern Rises for Teenage Skaters. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/18/sports/olympics/olympics-skating-valieva-age.html
Mann, B. (2024). Sports tribunal bans Russian Kamila Valieva from figure skating through 2025. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2024/01/29/1227529886/kamila-valieva-russian-figure-skater-2022-beijing-olympics-doping
OlympicTalk. (2022, June 7). Figure skating age minimum raised ahead of next Olympics. OlympicTalk | NBC Sports. https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2022/06/07/figure-skating-age-minimum-rules/
Roberts, V. Sojo, V., & Grant, F. (2020). Organizational factors and non-accidental violence in sport: A systematic review. Sport Management Review, 23, 8-27.
Media: from Wix