Examining the ‘ugly moments’ from the Russian figure skating controversy

This is the closing weekend of the Winter Olympics, which have in many ways been overshadowed by larger concerns, such as China's human rights record and doping allegations. We take a closer look at the controversies surrounding this year's Games, including the conduct of the Russian squad. Stephanie Apstein, of Sports Illustrated, joins Lisa Desjardins to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This is the closing weekend of the Winter Olympics that have in many ways been overshadowed by larger concerns, such as China's human rights record and doping allegations.

    We are going to look at much of this tonight, starting with the conduct of the Russian squad. Yesterday, Russian ice skater Kamila Valieva failed to medal, then was berated by her coach immediately afterward.

    Many were disturbed by how this unfolded and worried about the pressures on the athletes.

    Lisa Desjardins begins our coverage.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The women's ice skating competition has been a particularly ugly moment for the Games this week.

    For more about it, I'm joined by Stephanie Apstein of "Sports Illustrated." She's covering the Games right there in Beijing.

    Stephanie, let's start with that ladies competition that we in the United States saw last night. I don't think I have ever seen anything like it. Could you help take us through those ugly moments, Russian skaters being treated very sternly, raising a lot of controversy? A great deal of emotion there at the end.

    What happened?

    Stephanie Apstein, "Sports Illustrated": Yes, I don't think I have ever seen anything quite like it either. It was really hard to watch.

    Kamila Valieva, who had been the favorite going into it and was competing under this cloud of doping suspicion, struggled dramatically in her free skate. She fell twice. She stepped out of jumps. I mean, it was really a mess. She was crying by the time she came off the ice.

    And the first person who greeted her was her coach, Eteri Tutberidze, who basically just started yelling at her immediately, asking her why she had given up, basically why she wasn't trying harder.

    So, understandably, Valieva continues sobbing. And then they announce that she has finished fourth, meaning the her teammate Anna Shcherbakova is going to win. Shcherbakova is alone at that moment that she finds it out. She's sitting there just sort of stunned, looking not terribly happy.

    The second-place finisher, Alexandra Trusova, is sobbing as well, because she completed a very challenging routine that she thought should have won. So she is weeping. She's yelling that she hates skating, she hates the sport, she hates her coaches, she never wants to do it again, everybody has a gold medal except for her.

    It was really — really an upsetting scene to see these three teenagers all having really big emotions, all for pretty upsetting reasons.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As you say, these are young women who really have put most of the rest of their lives on hold for this sport and for the Olympic Games.

    Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, was asked about this, and he did show some concern. Is there any way the Olympic Committee can change how these skaters are treated or how any athlete is treated by coaches like this?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Well, I think the International Olympic Committee tends to say sort of vaguely the right thing, and then not take a lot of action to back it up.

    And that is what I would guess is happening here. Thomas Bach did say that he was concerned. But none of this should have been a surprise to him. I mean, there has been talk about this coach, this program for years. Certainly, Russians doping is not no. And it's his organization that has sort of let them skate, if you will.

    So I think there probably are things that the IOC could be doing, such as formal investigations. I think it could be separating itself a little bit from the higher court that sort of oversees things. I mean, a lot of the people who sit on the court also sit on the IOC, making it not really an independent body at all.

    It's all — they're all so entwined, that it's hard to see anything real getting done here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As the kind of bureaucracy of the sport has trouble dealing with it, we have seen what's happening with the skaters here, in that they're all pushing the limits.

    The second-place finisher, as you mentioned, Alexandra Trusova, I believe she landed five quadruple jumps. I want to ask you, what do we know about what that's doing to these young skaters' bodies? And is sport just going too far, too demanding on these skaters at this point for their own physical health?

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Yes, that Trusova routine was actually — she landed five quads, which is the same number as the men's champion, Nathan Chen. So that's sort of a wild statistic, if you think about the difference in the male body and the female body.

    And part of the problem is that, once these girls bodies mature into women's bodies, they really can't generate the kind of force required to land these quadruple jumps. They have sort of the wrong muscle-to-fat ratio, as they would naturally as they age.

    And so that also sets up really backward incentives, in that if your goal is to create skaters who can do these sort of incredible rotations, what you want are children, and you want them to be as skinny as possible, because, the less they weigh, the easier it is for them to launch themselves into the air.

    So you end up with situations like this one, in which Russian skaters have talked about not really being allowed to eat very much. Some said they didn't even drink water during the Olympics, because it's all about keeping their weight down, so that they can produce these jumps.

    And these are issues that the skating community has faced for a long time, this sort of artistry vs. athleticism question. And I think this is sort of the natural endpoint of that, is, if you want to see them do these jumps, the way to do it is pretty unhealthy. It's pretty bad for their bodies.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, in fact, you wrote that you think it's time for figure skating to set an age limit.

    Do you think that would…

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Yes, I think it would help.

    The age limit is currently 15, which, as I think we have seen, is low, both from a physical perspective, as I mentioned, and then also just sort of the horror of what we saw at the event. These are children. And the IOC sort of nods at this issue by having a protected person class through the World Anti-Doping Agency that basically says 15-year-olds are too young to make decisions for themselves, and, therefore, they shouldn't be prosecuted quite the same way.

    Well, if they're too young to know what they're doing, then maybe we shouldn't just — we shouldn't have them at the Olympics. So, yes, I Would suggest — and a lot of other people have been talking about maybe it's time to suggest that they all be 18.

    This is an adult sport for adults. It would make it less likely that these are children being taken advantage of. It would force these organizations to find a way to extend the careers of these athletes.

    Mariah Bell, who is a 25-year-old U.S. skater, pointed out that she's really been able to make a profession out of this and that, for a lot of her younger peers, they will do it for two years maybe at the senior elite level, they will compete at one Olympics, and then that's it, and they're retired at age 17, and they have back problems, and they have to sort of move on with their lives.

    And is that really what we want for these people? I think it probably isn't.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A fascinating and sometimes very difficult Olympic Games.

    Thank you so much for joining us to talk about it, Stephanie Apstein of "Sports Illustrated."

  • Stephanie Apstein:

    Thanks for having me.

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