Cold as Ice: Russian Figure Skating Guru Eteri Tutberidze


Virginia Woolf said that “reading Russian novels is similar to seeing a naked man crawl from a train wreck.” I laughed when I read this line on the first day of my Russian Lit class because Russian figure skating is no different! I’ve followed figure skating ever since the 2022 Winter Olympics, and at first glance, it’s beauty is unparalleled: Glimmering costumes catch the light upon every twist, and each jump forms a satisfying arch before landing on ice. However, when you look closely, you realize that the beauty of the sport masks its insidious horrors, ones that make you initially squirm and then gawk at their absurdity. 

The controversial quality of Russian figure skating is owed largely to one woman: Eteri Tutberidze. Eteri Tutberidze has the uncanny ability to always appear unfazed, even after watching her student perform the most scientifically beautiful quad jump (4 revolutions in the air!). Eteri produces stars, just some of whom include 2022 Olympic champion Anna Shcherbakova, 2018 Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, and 2014 team Olympic champion Yulia Lipnitskaya. However, some disagree with her training style despite their success. Her monopoly over golds is tainted with her appalling training techniques and abusive behavior. In Russia, she is a national hero, but to some foreigners, she is a consequentialist who will win at all costs. 

Exclusive footage of training camp in Novogorsk reveals the physical and mental strain that Tutberitze hurls onto her students. A typical training day consists of 10 hours of grueling work, and each minute expects perfection. During program run-throughs, if a skater is not perfect, they will stay until they correct their mistake. The demanding schedule with little time to rest inevitably drains her skaters. Eteri also keeps her skaters underfed: “I always say that one gram of fat is one gram of laziness. How many they have gained, that’s how lazy they are.” Athletes are supposed to be nourished, but Eteri frowns upon each gram her skaters consume because it will be harder for them to jump high. During competitions, her skaters can’t even drink water and are sometimes forced to eat powdered nutrients instead of food. Sheer exhaustion, undernourishment, and bad technique leads to the injuries of many 16-17 year old Tutberize skaters. So far, all of Tutberitdze’s teenage Olympians before the 2022 Olympics have retired due to irreversible injuries. This is called the “Eteri expiration date”: Once you turn 18, there will be a younger, more nimble girl waiting to replace you. Eteri’s club is a slaughterhouse.

While Eteri’s methods have always been problematic, they have gained more attention after the 2022 Olympics. Here, Tutberidze’s student Kamila Valieva , the 16-year-old figure skating phenom, comes into the picture. Earlier this year, Valieva made headlines after breaking the world record for her total score (short program + free program) at just 15 years old. A couple weeks later, she broke her own record. The whirlwhind of hype surrounding Valieva convinced everyone that she was the shoe-in for an Olympic gold. But all of this fell apart when she tested positive for trimetazidine, a drug that can enhance bloodflow to your heart. The Internet trapped Valieva in a whirlwind of criticism despite being a minor who probably was forced to take the drugs, which put Valieva in great mental strain. She continued to compete, but her stress got the best of her and she fell apart in her free program. Eteri’s reaction to Valieva’s falls was disgusting. Instead of consoling her student, she sternly asked,  “Why did you let go? Why did you stop fighting?” 

Despite Eteri’s unethical practices, I somehow can’t stop watching her skaters. I tune into every Russian event. Maybe it’s because of how outlandish it is—the investigative journalist in me can’t turn away. It boggles me how Eteri will do anything to win, and I’m scared to see what she will do next.