Women's Figure Skating Has to Change

The scene that unfolded on Thursday morning in Beijing during the Women’s Figure Skating competition — watching Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old thrust into the center of Russia’s doping scandal, struggle so publicly — was disheartening on many levels. It also capped off a terrible week for the sport of figure skating, the Olympic Games, the Olympic movement — and, most of all, the women involved.

The women competing have spent their lives sacrificing normalcy — and their health — at a chance to be number one in the world. And this is where we have a problem.

The Olympic creed is that the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part.  But how can one take part when they are broken down? Something needs to change. Here’s how that change could start.

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Update the Scoring System

Exploiting the scoring system shouldn’t result in exploiting the athlete. When the 6.0 scoring system was replaced with the International Judging System in the early 2000s — moving away from a relatively subjective and wholistic approach, into one that awards points for each individual element the skater executes — the unintended consequence was a prioritization of jumping (included in the first mark) versus the artistry and skating skills (the second mark). To gain the biggest advantage under this system, skaters focus their training on jumping. The first quad landed by a woman was in this Olympics, with the first and second place finisher doing multiple quads in their program. The goal of the scoring system, both in the 6.0 system and now, is that the skater who is the best at both marks ends up on top. But that is not what is happening, because it is so much harder to rack up points in the second mark once quads are introduced. So it becomes a jumping game. It should be noted that no woman over 17 has landed a quad in competition.

Ensure Skaters Are Healthy, No Matter Their Age

Another solution that has been suggested is raising the age limit of competitors in skating. I’m not convinced this is the answer. If a skater is good enough, and is able to do necessary elements under the scoring system, that skater should be allowed to compete at a level consistent with their skill. Since 1994, teenage women have dominated the top spot at the Games, with 7 out of the last 8 Olympic champions winning as a teenager (including myself at 16). The top men tend to be older. The age limit in skating is the same for men and women, but raising the age limit disproportionately affects women, who generally peak in the sport earlier than men.

The sport has erred towards favoring women who are very young and very thin. Maybe fixing one fixes the other. What about another metric to ensure a healthier body? That would help avoid unhealthy measures taken to delay puberty and keep weight at unhealthy levels, lessening the mental and emotional turmoil these young girls face to succeed in the sport.

Monitor Potentially Harmful ‘Stables’

One more solution to encourage the well-being of the athletes could be to stop harmful skating stables, where skaters tend to have little say and multiple skaters of the same level are pitted against each other. In a stable like this, skaters have less of an incentive to take care of their own well-being. There is a win at all costs attitude that goes against the principles of sportsmanship and fair play. The skaters are disposable, with the coaching team spreading its bets among the skaters and having less of an interest in maintaining their physical and mental well-being than if there were fewer of the top skaters under the same coach. When parents think of sending their child to the “best coach,” they aren’t thinking they are sending their child to be broken, they are thinking they are doing what’s best for their child’s success.

Perhaps the solution is simpler and more narrow: more frequent doping tests and in multiple ways, such as hair samples, blood tests, and urine tests. Harsher penalties for coaches and doctors whose athletes test positive for banned substances. The International Skating Union or International Olympic Committee monitoring magnet facilities. Being in this world, there many people who exclude the values of sportsmanship and fair play, and have fulfilling, purposeful post-Olympic lives. The solutions that need to be implemented aren’t ones that change those lives. They are the ones that will disincentive what we are seeing now. It is unfortunate that it took a positive doping test to get the ball rolling on athlete well-being — which should be table stakes — but now that we’re here, this can be the most important change of all.

Sarah Hughes won a gold medal for figure skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. 

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