The Inside Edge: Abuse in skating is perpetuated by an obsession with optics

Members of the skating community are getting away with too much because of the sport’s non-controversial nature.

“The Inside Edge” is a column by Faith Bonds about figure skating.

Ask any group of skaters about the environment at their training rink, and they’ll tell you there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Overbearing mothers, tumultuous partnerships, and abusive coach/skater relations rule many of the elite centers around the world. These relationships extend beyond the typical drama expected in a female-dominated sport, creating a toxic environment for all parties involved.

I believe there are two reasons for this behavior. First, people are obsessed with winning. Second, figure skating is obsessed with perception.

When world silver medalist Ashley Wagner broke her silence early last month about the sexual misconduct former U.S. figure skating champion John Coughlin committed against her, she perfectly articulated the reason why victims hesitate to come forward.

“I was a young skater coming up through the ranks in a judged sport,” Wagner told USA Today Sports. “I didn't want to add anything to my career that would make me seem undesirable or dramatic. I didn't want to be known in figure skating as the athlete who would cause trouble. And I genuinely didn't feel like anyone would listen to me anyway.”

Coughlin, who committed suicide in the wake of two sexual misconduct allegations against him in January, was a beloved, established member of the skating community. In 2008, the time of the assault against Wagner, the 17-year-old’s reputation was more vulnerable than 22-year-old Coughlin’s. She would have put her entire budding career on the line by coming forward, so she chose to live in silence.

Unfortunately, Wagner’s situation doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

In a subjective sport such as figure skating, it’s not difficult for judges to bury certain skaters who don’t fit their vision for the sport or cause too much drama. Judges rate the quality of every element in a skater’s program on a scale from -5 to +5, as well as mark five different presentation components on a scale from 1 to 10.

This gives judges the liberty to promote a certain “character,” namely one of princess-like beauty, a petite figure, and a meek attitude. Skaters who don’t fit this archetype can hardly last longer than a couple of years at the elite level.

As a competitive skater for 10 years, as well as a judge and official, I’ve spent enough time in skating rinks to track the behavioral patterns. In an attempt to adhere to skating’s unrealistic expectations, I’ve seen many skaters develop eating disorders, endure demeaning relationships with their coaches, and sacrifice their identity to be number one.

Eteri Tutberidze, the coach of last year’s Pyeongchang Olympic ladies’ gold and silver medalists, adheres to strict practices at her rink. Former Tutberidze student Polina Shuboderova told Sport Express Russia, “even if you are tired or you are injured, you still go on the ice and work.” Injury is perceived as weakness.

Not only does Tutberidze disregard skaters’ injuries, she also establishes strict guidelines around weight. Shuboderova claims that the coach has each student record her weight upon arrival at the rink every morning and does not allow any variance exceeding half a pound.

Coaches’ obsession with weight has often led skaters to develop eating disorders. One of Tutberidze’s students, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was a gold-medal favorite in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. After a disappointing showing, Tutberidze fired Lipnitskaya as a student, and the skater checked into inpatient care for her chronic anorexia soon after.

America’s own Gracie Gold came forward to the New York Times last year with her own version of this story. She had never worried about her weight, nor counted calories, but that all changed one day when she weighed herself in front of a coach. The scale read 124 pounds, and the coach replied, “That’s a big number.”

This comment, coupled with compliments about how good she looked after dropping a few pounds and her ability to fly faster across the ice, drove Gold to a diet of just one tomato and several cups of coffee per day.

Skaters are encouraged to be as thin as possible, and as a result, problems with eating disorders aren’t typically addressed until it’s too late.

“I was suicidal for months,” Gold said. “If I had just continued the way I was in Detroit [where she was training at the time], I’d probably be dead.”

Skating is nothing without the talented young athletes who love and support the sport. This system needs to shift its focus from appearance to taking care of the skaters who make skating successful in the first place.

“The Inside Edge” runs every Wednesday.

September 11, 5:06 p.m. - The original version of this article stated that Coughlin was an Olympian. Annenberg Media apologizes for the error.