Winter Olympics: Who is Kamila Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze?
Hosts: Beijing, China Dates: 4-20 FebruaryCoverage: Watch live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Red Button and online; listen on BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Sounds; live text and highlights on BBC Sport website and mobile app
What kind of training method is it when a coach confronts instead of comforts a sobbing 15-year-old at the Olympic Games?
“Chilling”, according to the International Olympic Committee. “meaningful” for athletes to unprotected to victory, according to the Russian government.
The Eteri Tutberidze kind, according to what millions witnessed this week.
That and all the events surrounding her young skater Kamila Valieva at these Beijing Winter Olympics have thrust the spotlight on a coach who has produced a string of young champions in recent years.
So what do we know about the Russian and her methods? And will anything now change?
A former ice dancer & award-winning coach
Tutberidze, 47, is a former ice dancer who then lived in the United States in the 1990s for six years working in ice shows.
While there she was caught up in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which killed 168 people. She and her troupe had been staying over the road from the federal building where the blast happened and received compensation as a victim of the attack.
While in the US, she had a daughter, Diana Davis, who competed at Beijing 2022 in the ice dance, finishing 14th along with Gleg Smolkin. Davis is not trained by her mother.
Tutberidze began building a coaching career in the US but then moved back to Russia, ultimately joining the Sambo-70 club in Moscow. It was only eight years ago, when she coached 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya to team gold with Russia at Sochi 2014, that she started to become a household name.
She has since won many coaching awards, including the International Skating Union’s (ISU) coach of the year accolade in 2020 and a state award in 2018 that was presented to her by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The ISU at the time described her as a “talented coach”, who has “given so much strength and dedication to her athletes this season”.
Early success, early retirement
What sets Tutberidze’s skaters except others on the world stage is their age and athleticism.
Lipnitskaya’s 2014 Olympic success was followed in 2018 by Alina Zagitova, who was 15 when she won gold, ahead of 18-year-old silver medallist Evgenia Medvedeva.
Pre-Beijing, everything was pointing to a clean sweep by Russian teenagers of the podium places. They had done just that at the European championships in January with Valieva finishing ahead of Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova.
Instead it was 17-year-olds Shcherbakova and Trusova who took the gold and silver here, with Valieva finishing fourth after an error-strewn performance in Thursday’s free skate following an incredibly difficult 10 days in which she had been allowed by a court to continue competing despite the revelation she had failed a drugs test.
The trio are known as the ‘quad squad’ because they all perform quadruple jumps, which are the hardest and very scarce in women’s figure skating. They were the only ones of the 25 skaters competing in the individual event to attempt any.
But it is not only their young age when they win that is notable under Tutberidze. They are also often nevertheless teenagers when they retire.
Her athletes have a reputation in skating circles of being “disposable” – that is the information Austrian 1972 figure skating champion Beatrix Shuba once used – and part of a production line.
It is not really a surprise that they do not last long – by their character, those high-scoring quads – rotating four times mid-air – are much easier to do when you have a small body with thin hips and shoulders.
“It is the little girl bodies that allow that kind of rotation to happen, it is the same thing in gymnastics,” said 1980 figure skating champion and BBC commentator Robin Cousins.
“With the men, 30 year olds can do them [quads], the male physiology seems to be different and allows for the longevity that the female body doesn’t.”
If Valieva’s failed drugs test results in a ban, she may well be hanging up her skates early, while Trusova said she was considering her future after an angry outburst over missing out on gold where she said “I hate this sport, I hate all of it”.
Tutberidze’s ‘tough’ methods
In an interview Tutberidze gave to Russia’s Channel One in 2018, she said she makes champions by “love” not “strictness”.
She also said that she “doesn’t need things” but wants to make athletes “feel unsatisfied with their failure to complete a task” so that “they feel disgust inside them”.
Medvedeva said last year that Tutberidze’s methods “work but as you get older, with every year it’s harder to put up with it” and that she was also “half-starving” at times.
When Lipnitskaya retired at 17, she started treatment for anorexia, while Medvedeva, who has said she needed the “toughness” of Tutberidze’s coaching style in order to succeed, has permanently damaged her back.
At Pyeongchang 2018 Tutberidze (right) was alongside Medvedeva (centre), who was distraught that she had got a silver medal behind team-mate Zagitova
How is Tutberidze viewed following the Valieva case?
IOC president Thomas Bach said it “does not give me much confidence” in Valieva’s entourage after seeing how she was offered no comfort when she stepped off the ice sobbing on Thursday – with Tutberidze instead asking her “why did you stop fighting?”.
“When I saw how she was received by her closest entourage with what appeared to be a tremendous coldness, it was chilling to see this, instead of giving her comfort, instead of to try to help her,” said Bach.
In response to Bach, the deputy chief minister of Russia, Dmitry Chernyshenko, said: “We are deeply disappointed to see an IOC president weave his own fictional narrative on the feelings of our athletes, and then present these publicly as the voice of the IOC.
“This is frankly inappropriate and wrong. Win or lose we know our athletes are world-beating, and they do too.”
Valiera’s entourage is also under scrutiny in relation to the anti-doping investigation. The World Anti-Doping Agency says it will be launching an investigation into coaches, doctors and any other adults surrounding her.
That seems likely to include coaches Sergei Dudakov and Daniil Gleikhengauz, who have been in Beijing, and also team doctor Filipp Shvetsky.
Is it time to raise the minimum age to compete?
The Valieva case has left many now questioning whether it is time to raise the minimum age of seniors in the sport from 15 – both in terms of protecting the children but also in terms of making it a level playing field regarding the jumps they can do.
Teenagers have now won the women’s singles gold medal in seven of the past eight Olympics.
“I absolutely believe that there should be an age limit,” American skater Mariah Bell said this week. “I know for me, personally, I know when you’re growing there’s a lot of changes happening. There are minors competing… that’s a whole different thing.”
Her coach Adam Rippon additional: “If there are two people who are competing against each other, like a woman that gets a period and has breasts and has hips against a young little girl who is 80 pounds, is it a fair playing field?”
Age limits are determined by sports’ individual federations, instead of the IOC, so it would be up to the International Skating Union.
Could it already be the quadruple jump that might need thinking about – what will the coaching methods be if older skaters are trying to unprotected to a young skater’s jump?
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