The line in the Kamila Valieva situation is long past

As the situation surrounding Kamila Valieva continues to develop, a bigger question is being brought to the front of peoples minds; where is the line when it comes to the cost winning a gold medal?

As the situation surrounding Kamila Valieva continues to develop, everyone wonders whether she will be permitted to compete in the Women's Singles event on February 15. A bigger question is being brought to the front of peoples minds; where is the line when it comes to the cost winning a gold medal?

While it is universally acknowledged that cheating by way of doping, tampering with equipment or acting outside of the rules of a sport is well and truly over that line.

But why are athletes and their coaching teams not being stopped long before it ever gets to the point that someone might consider breaking the rules just to win?

No one is happy to lose, especially elite athletes and a desire to win should be applauded, but if the mentality is to win no matter the cost, then we see the line of what people are willing to do blurred, which often creates a hostile environment long before anyone is found to be breaking any rules.

The first rumblings of a reckoning

In recent years sport has gone through a reckoning as athletes are performing at a higher level than any point in time in history, as to what's the cost of all the medal success.

It's an issue that divides people because while many like to see the boundaries of a sport being pushed to absolute the limit, when it comes to athlete wellbeing and safety put into question, some will draw the line. Meanwhile, others believe that some of the more dangerous practices are simply sacrifices that need to be made in order to win.

The most prominent example of this in the past six years has been USA Gymnastics, the survivors of Larry Nassar's abuse also brought forth allegations of physical and mental abuse of senior figures within the sport namely long-time US National Team head coach and team coordinator Bela and Marta Karolyi.

Their methods saw success as early as 1976 when Nadia Comaneci stunned the world and when they defected to the United States and took over the head coaching jobs they found success in both the team and individual events, medaling at every Olympics since 1992.

However, there was a cost to these medals, externally the world saw serious injuries get turned into hero moments, notably Kerri Strug's one-footed landing at the 1996 Olympics after injuring her ankle to win Team USA Gold.

A moment that is to this day hailed as incredible for the strength of an athlete despite the fact that Strug didn't have a choice when it came to attempting her final vault.

What the world didn't see and we are only now aware of thanks to athletes speaking up in interviews for articles and documentaries like Netflix'sAthlete A, is that the treatment of the athletes at their home gyms and a part of the national team was cold at best and abusive at worst.

These athletes were often minors and the people that should be protecting them were either not around, such as parents who were often unable to contact their children while they were at the Karolyi Ranch or were the coaches and officials in the organisation who were aware but turned a blind eye if they were not also perpetuating these practices.

How has this become so normalised?

Athletes at a young age are expected to listen to a coach, no questions asked it's a military-style of coaching that we can see even at local levels of sport.

We've all heard the phrase, "When I say: 'Jump!'; You say: 'How high?'", asking why or suggesting an alternative is considered a problem. If an underage athlete is told to do something that is dangerous, especially if they are dealing with an injury, what is the likelihood they will question let alone reject a coaches command?

However, it's long been established that there are limits to the boundaries they're trying to push, doping is one of those limits but that's so far past the line of acceptable that it is unproductive to bring it into the conversation.

Injuries are a normal part of sport, they are an unfortunate reality of people pushing the human body to the absolute limit.

However, if the practices of a coaching team are resulting in numerous athletes, that are adults, getting seriously injured, developing eating disorders or dealing with mental health issues, then no matter how many trophies or medals their students are winning, their methods need to be called into question. When this happens to athletes that are minors, the coaches need to be investigated.

Meanwhile, we as viewers of the sport need to think about the harm we perpetuate by brushing aside the concerning actions we might see just because an athlete is wearing a medal around their neck.

Alarm bells have been sounding in the world of skating for years

Fans of figure skating have been trying to raise the alarm about Eteri Tutberidze and Sambo 70, the head coach and rink that Valieva skates for, as early as 2015.

This was long before there was any talk of athletes allegedly doping and surrounded the treatment of athletes who at their peak, for the most part, are 16 or younger.

The Sambo 70 program first got attention on the global stage in 2014 with 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskya's performance in the team event at the Sochi Olympics, finishing in first in both segments and her performance toSchindler's Listin her free skate.

At this point, the coaching team was praised for creating this emerging skater who despite not winning individual gold was expected to have an incredible and long career.

However, a year later she wasn't selected for the team to go to European Championships or the World Championships and in November of 2015, she left Tutberidze's coaching team. Lipnitskya continued to compete for a few more years and eventually retired in 2017 following an injury.

On paper, this all sounds innocuous and a story of an athlete that didn't live up to her potential, however, she was the first athlete in a pattern that has had their careers cut short due to their bodies failing them after training under the banner of Sambo 70.

Lipnitskya has admitted to battling with eating disorders due to the hyper restrictive diets during her skating career, and there have beenreportsTutberidze publicly spoke on just how restrictive the diet was in 2014, claiming Lipnitskya at times existed on a diet of"powdered nutrients".

Publicly talking to the press about how little the Sambo 70 skaters eat isn't a one-off incident from seven years ago.

In 2019 choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz praised 2022 Olympian Anna Shcherbakova for not being obsessed with food like other girls are after the host commented on how little the then 15-year-old ate at dinner.

Even athletes have spoken about their restrictive diets, 2018 Olympic gold medalist Alina Zagitova told RussianGlamourthat she went as far as to restrict water during the Olympics.

"Generally, I restricted myself during the Olympic Games. I was, you can say, not drinking water at all. That is, we just rinsed our mouths and spit it all out.” Zagitova said

The strategy Sambo 70 employs is to delay puberty for as long as possible and their window of success is dictated by how long they can do so, then the athletes retire after two or three senior seasons having hit puberty or their bodies succumbing to injuries.

2018 Olympic silver medallist and two-time World Champion Evgenia Medvedeva headed into the Olympics with injuries but still looked like she was on top of the world. However, not long after the Games, it came out just how severe her injuries were, with Medvedeva dealing with stress fractures that could have left her unable to walk.

She's one of the longest-lasting athletes that came from the Sambo 70 camp competing in five senior seasons, following the 2018 Olympics she left Tutberidze to train in Toronto, Canada under Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson. Medvedeva faced harassment online and in the media, for leaving the team she'd trained under since she was nine years old.

She then returned to Tutberidze in 2020 but didn't again compete after her return to the coaching team and retired in December of 2021 due to chronic back pain.

Medvedeva wasn't the first student to leave and she wouldn't be the last following the 2019-2020 season. Two of Tutberidze's latest batch of stars Alena Kostornia and Alexandra Trusova both decided to leave her tutelage to train under 2006 Olympic gold medallist Evgeni Plushenko.

If Medvedeva was criticised for leaving, then Kostornia was branded as a traitor with Tutberidze voicing her dissatisfaction with the then 16-year-old for leaving on social media, criticising Lipnitskya and Medvedva in the process and drawing parallels to their departures.

These aggressive reactions to a skater leaving can be contrasted to three-time Olympic medallist Shoma Uno who left his coaches, Mihoko Higuchi and Machiko Yamada, following the 2018-2019 season.

Higuchi goes as far as praising Uno for how he's grown since leaving the team and giving him her blessing at the time that he left.

A year later, ahead of the Olympic season both Kostornia and Trusova returned, Trusova was welcomed back and eventually was selected for the Olympic team, whileKostornia's return was under probationwith the skater expected to meet certain requirements, including getting the triple axel jump back.

Kostornia's season ended after she fractured a bone in her hand after a bad fall on a triple axel attempt.

Sambo 70 has pushed women's singles in recent years bringing forward by way of the quad revolution in women's skating, however, aside from a few notable exceptions all the women attempting quad jumps hail from Sambo 70.

As discussed earlier essential to this strategy is delaying puberty for as long as possible but it isn't the only successful training strategy and shouldn't be lauded as being foolproof for medal success.

2022 Olympian Wakaba Higuchi will compete in the women's singles event and has brought the triple axel into her programs in recent years to keep up with the Russians, whilst two-time Olympian Kaori Sakamoto has developed her artistry and focused on clean elements to put herself into medal contention in the individual event this year.

Both women are in their early 20s and have been through ups and downs in their careers but come back stronger, proving that every part of an athletes skating doesn't fall apart when they hit puberty and that the lifespan of a women's singles skater's career isn't condensed down to a two or three-year window.

The proof is also in Russia by way of the first alternate for the women's singles event in Beijing, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva, who at 25 has competed at the senior level for 11 years and has continued to incorporate difficult technical elements, including the triple axel on its own and in combination which helped her win silver at the 2021 World Championships.

All of these issues were public about the Tutberidze camp before even touching any allegations of doping, but it creates the conditions in which this may have been possible.

The issue is many of the things that have been normalised even to outsiders of the sport as the cost of winning, with young athletes that often don't have the option to say no and will just do what they're told by their coaches tell them to do.

It can not be stressed enough that this current situation involves a 15-year-old, who will be under scrutiny for the rest of her career regardless of the outcomes of the legal case.

Ultimately for Tutberidze, Kamila Valieva is expendable, a new crop of girls are waiting in the wings to become the next top women's skater in the world, with more quadruple jumps than Valieva and they are facing the similar training methods that Lipnitskya was seven years ago.

So it begs the question if only the athlete is punished, what's to stop this from happening again and what is already happening to continue?