Figure skating is a beautiful but deeply competitive sport where being streamlined, lightweight and holding impressive stamina are crucial in pushing the limits of the human body through stunning spins, jumps and positions. The recent Olympic scandal, as 15-year-old Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee reportedly failed a drug test (BBC) for taking banned angina drug, Trimetazidine, not only portrays the unfair playing field created by doping, largely inspired by ties between political rivalry and sport. It also exposes the unhealthy pressures on athletes’ bodies at the expense of winning and breaking records.
In skating, the need to be streamlined and lightweight has deteriorated into a world of severe body shaming, delaying puberty, and mental health conditions. However, this issue expands far beyond the Russian team. As a youth dominated sport, centred on agility, grace and presentation, dieting culture and doping in skating exposes an inevitable danger of the human curiosity to push the boundaries of the body.
Growing up, I was a figure skater. Even in the casual amateur setting in which I practised, the correlation between being smaller and performing better was often stressed. As addressed in the award-winning 2018 film, I Tonya, the skating ‘princesses’ at the forefront of the sport were always extremely slim, conventionally attractive, made-up young girls with small builds and elegant demeanours. These were the role models I idolized and tried to mimic, although there was a striking lack of diversity.
As the sport has become increasingly focused on jumps rather than artistry and feeling, I believe it has become more exclusive both in professional and amateur spheres. Upon reaching puberty, as my body and mentality changed, and I became more fearful to execute certain moves, I became demoralised and quit skating. Since, I have found a more relaxed and diverse environment.
It raises the question: how much integrity and health will athletes sacrifice in order to win? Or rather, particularly in the case of young skaters, how much will coaches disregard their athletes’ health to beat their rivals.
Time for change
The desire to dope and extreme diet to gain glory and push limits in international sport is inevitable and there is no easy fix. However, it is clear that increased random drug testing, regulation in testing labs, and high consequences for those caught are crucial.
Perhaps more importantly, mental health support networks for all athletes need to be developed, and damaging coaching techniques reformed and regulated. If the world of figure skating is to become as beautiful on the interior as it appears on the exterior, the environment of the sport must change dramatically.