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Olympic Figure Skating’s ugly little secret is coming to light

FIGURE SKATING
Joseph Sohm | Shutterstock
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At least two champion skaters have withdrawn from Olympic contention.

Olympic seasons aren’t supposed to start like this.

The Olympics are all about hopes and dreams being fulfilled, about hard work finally paying off. They’re a time for excitement and the celebration of new heroes. We all know this. TV and magazines remind us of it every four years (every two, for those who follow both the winter and summer games).

But this has begun as an Olympic season of a different kind.

Back in September, two-time U.S. figure skating champion Gracie Gold started withdrawing from competitions, vaguely citing a need to seek “professional help.” Formerly one of the most promising skaters on the world scene, Gold had stumbled through the 2016-17 season, looking as if all the joy had gone out of the sport for her.

Several weeks into the current season, Gold finally made the announcement: She had an eating disorder, accompanied by depression and anxiety. In the end, she decided to withdraw entirely from the Olympic season she had worked so hard for, to concentrate on getting well.

Gold wasn’t the first. Just a few days earlier, another of skating’s brightest lights, Yulia Lipnitskaya, had announced her retirement. If you have a good memory for Olympic moments, you might remember her as the young girl in the red coat who enchanted the world four years ago, skating to the music of Schindler’s List.

What you might not know is that afterwards, Lipnitskaya’s skating suffered under the intense spotlight in her native Russia. Worse, she herself suffered under a hyper-strict diet that led to anorexia. This had been going on for years by the time she went into treatment. For the sake of her health, she had to end a brilliant career at the age of 19.

Gold and Lipnitskaya are two of the highest-profile skaters ever to open up about having eating disorders. As we’ve already seen, 2017 seems to have brought out a lot of unwonted honesty about some pretty important subjects. For whatever reason, this seems to be a tipping point, a moment for truth-tellers to come forward.

For skaters, it’s not a moment too soon. Eating disorders have been the sport’s ugly secret for far too long. Like dancers, skaters strive for a body type that allows them to jump, spin, and — for pair skaters and ice dancers — be lifted as easily as possible. Too many have tried to achieve that goal by starving or purging — often with the full knowledge and even the encouragement of their coaches.

2004 U.S. bronze medalist Jenny Kirk, one of the first skaters to address the problem openly, has written about humiliating public weigh-ins and other harmful coaching practices that cause many skaters to become obsessed with their weight. In 2014, Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze was proud to inform the press that Yulia Lipnitskaya, then her star pupil, sometimes existed almost entirely on a diet of “powdered nutrients.” At 15. While training for hours every day.

On the other hand, a wise coach can help rescue a skater before he or she heads too far down this dangerous path. 2006 Olympic silver medalist Tanith Belbin was at one point so weak from disordered eating that her ice dance partner, Ben Agosto, struggled to lift her. With her lack of core strength and little ability to hold her positions, it was like lifting a “sack of potatoes.” It wasn’t until a new coach, Natalia Linichuk, told Belbin to gain 10 pounds that both partners finally got some relief.

As more horror stories emerge, the skating world must come to terms with the fact that athletes are not machines. They are human beings. Often — especially in a sport like skating — they are very young and vulnerable human beings, heavily reliant on the authority figures in their lives. And social media increases their vulnerability by letting people directly insult athletes’ looks, weight, and performance via Twitter.

Combine that vulnerability with an athlete’s fierce drive to be the best, and you have a situation ripe for abuse and exploitation. A teenager with a serious Olympic dream will make any number of sacrifices to achieve it. Coaches and parents, often just as hungry for glory as their charges, can take advantage of that willingness and demand more and more of them, disregarding their health.

As Jenny Kirk put it, “After years of having their fate in the hands of judges and being pressured to look and act a certain way in order to achieve the best results, a skater’s self-esteem becomes basically non-existent. Daily, there are people weighing-in on what a skater needs to fix in their skating in order to achieve the best results in the sport. And because skating is such an image-driven sport, weight is often a primary topic.”

Ironically, it never seems to occur to these people that an unhealthy athlete is probably going to lack the stamina and energy to turn in a good performance. Not until the athlete finally crashes and burns.

This is sobering talk for an Olympic season. It’s hard for those of us who love this demanding but inspiring sport to face its dark side. But with two stellar careers derailed, now is the time to talk about it. The more we listen, the more we speak up when we get the chance, the more we insist that it is not acceptable to starve a child for the sake of athletic glory, the more we can do to hold officials accountable for what goes on in their sport, and encourage more coaches to help their students stay healthy.

We expect a lot of our skaters — to be the epitome of power and grace, to represent our country, to make us proud, to give us shining moments to remember. They do their best to oblige, putting themselves through pain and stress that most of us can’t even imagine. Perhaps they have the right to expect something from us in return: to remember that, despite what may seem like superhuman abilities, they’re only human after all.

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