From Disney’s Ice Princess to Netflix’s drama series Spinning Out, whenever professional ice skating is dramatised, depictions always include themes of pressure, trauma and mental health struggles as consistent tropes. Seemingly, it’s a beautiful sport that society considers to be characterised by intense competition with perfection placed ahead of athletes’ wellbeing.
As the Winter Olympics continues on, TikTok detectives have taken to compiling clips of female skaters shaking and crying as they leave the ice in an insinuation that they’re under too much pressure or are suffering mentally. While much of this is speculation, it does call into question why there isn’t a greater demand for athlete safeguarding in a sport that’s renowned for its ruthlessness.
‘Shaking can be attributed to adrenaline release,’ psychologist and psychotherapist Charlotte Armitage told Grazia. ‘However, adrenaline can be triggered by psychological factors. When athletes are training at an elite level, the expectations placed on their performance at a world competition, which is tense, stressful, and a pressurised environment, results in heightened emotions and may consequently cause shaking and crying.
‘When you consider that these young athletes have been training their entire life for this performance, making huge sacrifices to become the best at their sport, the stakes are high,’ she continued. ‘Therefore, it’s only natural that if it doesn't go the way they hoped they can feel devastated and overwhelmed.’
Chinese athlete Zhu Yi hit headlines last week after she fell twice during her free skating event in the women’s team competition and left the ice in tears. Cruelly, ‘Zhu Yi has fallen’ was a trending topic on Weibo and the hashtag gained around 200 million views, with the comment ‘this is such a disgrace’ earning 11,000 upvotes. Aside from punishing herself, Yi has had to withstand public humiliation at 19 years old.
This week, focus has turned to Russia’s 15-year-old figure skater Kamila Valieva, who has just been cleared to compete in the games despite failing a drug test in December because trimetazidine was found in her system. Usually used to treat angina attacks, the substance is banned because it’s considered a cardiac metabolic modulator and can improve physical efficiency.
When Valieva tested positive, The Global Athlete Group defended her, saying: ‘[the result] is evidence of the abuse of a minor. Sport should be protecting its athletes, not damaging them.’ And when the skater was cleared to compete by the Court Of Arbitration For Sport, they said there were ‘exceptional circumstances’ relating to Valieva’s case and that meant banning her would ‘cause her irreparable harm’.
When the International Olympic Committee was asked by iNews about the impact of the investigation on Valieva’s mental health, spokesperson Mark Adams replied: ‘There are 65 athlete welfare officers that are working in the village here. Each of the national committees can ask for chaperones for any of their athletes [that are] under age. But in the first place, it’s obviously for each team to support their people first and foremost.’
'Kamila Valieva is a young girl and a child prodigy whose highly difficult performance and grace enchanted the whole world'
Yet, how can Valieva's welfare remain with her team when her coach Eteri Tutberidze has been criticised for her training methods due to a history of injured skaters and accusations of diet restrictions alleged by her athletes?
Worryingly, this is common. Female athletes who compete in aesthetic sports (like skating) experience a level of body shaming that’s so high it's an equivalent to emotional abuse, according to a recent study by the University of Toronto.
‘I do believe that not enough is done for the mental wellbeing of athletes,’ Eating Disorder Counsellor Ruth Micallef told Grazia. ‘Body shaming, and general shaming, is high within 'celebrity' circles, and nobody can really prepare themselves mentally for mass public shaming. With that in mind, if an athlete is already struggling, this really could push them towards incredibly poor mental health and coping in ways that are harmful to them… Athletes are a group who need compassionate, targeted, ongoing therapeutic support,' she said.
Considering whether there are warning signs that coaches or spectators could identify in athletes before they reach breaking point, Armitage explained: ‘For many elite athletes, deterioration in their mental health will be easier to spot in their training but may culminate during competition.
'Factors to look out for are changes to the baseline levels of functioning for that individual, this could present as reduced capacity in sports performance, mental blocks (as we famously witness with Simones Biles last year), reduced energy levels or behavioural changes, and reduced resilience to their competitive environment.’
Today, as Valieva grimaced and tried her best not to cry after she fell during her rehearsal at the Bejing Olympic practise rink while cameras flashed and her coach watched with no visible emotion from the sidelines, it’s hard not to feel protective of this teenager who has the weight of Russia on her shoulders and the world’s eyes on her back.
In a sport that has a history of athlete ill treatment with a coach who has been accused of unethical practise, it’s arguably irresponsible for the IOC to claim that Valieva’s welfare remains with her team ‘first and foremost’. There needs to be a governing body that proactively oversees as a watchdog to safeguard against malpractice.
‘Kamila Valieva is a young girl and a child prodigy whose highly difficult performance and grace enchanted the whole world at only 15,’ double Olympic figure skating champion Katarina Witt told reporters on Friday. ‘[She is] a minor, depending on adults and she is not to blame here.’