Olympics-Formidable Russian coach and doctor with doping past in focus over Valieva case

FILE PHOTO: Figure Skating - Training
FILE PHOTO: 2022 Beijing Olympics – Figure Skating – Training Rink Capital Indoor Stadium, Beijing, China – February 12, 2022. Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee during training with the Russian Olympic Committee coach Eteri Tutberidze REUTERS/Aleksandra Szmigiel/File Photo

February 14, 2022

By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, Polina Nikolskaya and Luc Cohen

BEIJING/MOSCOW/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The turmoil engulfing a 15-year-old Russian figure skater who tested positive for a banned substance has thrust her eminent coach and a doctor with past doping offences into the spotlight at the Beijing Games.

Teen skater Kamila Valieva was cleared on Monday to compete in her remaining event. But the drug charge against her is unresolved and anti-doping authorities in Russia are unlikely to hear her case until well after the Winter Games end.

As Valieva prepares to retake the ice on Tuesday, the role of her doctor and coach, along with other adults in the prodigy’s sporting career, has prompted outrage over how a minor could have taken the banned heart drug trimetazidine. Valieva’s case has shone a light on the conditions endured by the Russian teenagers who now dominate figure skating.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said it would launch an independent investigation into the adults surrounding Valieva. WADA said the Russian Anti-Doping Agency was already investigating.

U.S. anti-doping officials said the Russians who have directed Valieva could also be prosecuted under the American Rodchenkov Act. The new laws empower U.S. prosecutors to seek fines of up to $1 million and jail terms of up to 10 years, even for non-Americans, if their actions have affected the results of U.S. athletes.

Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze, who is known in skating circles for harsh training methods, faces heightened scrutiny at the Beijing Games. She is the most highly sought-after figure skating coach in Russia.

Filipp Shvetsky can be seen rinkside during Russian figure skaters’ competitions and practices. The towering, dark-haired physician works at a war veterans’ hospital in Moscow in addition to treating members of Russia’s figure skating team.

Shvetsky and several Russian rowers were suspended from the sport between 2007 and 2010 for anti-doping violations, said Jim Walden, an attorney for Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory who turned whistleblower.

Rowing’s international governing body said at the time that the violations were related to prohibited intravenous infusions.

After his suspension was lifted, he joined the national figure skating team. The blame, Shvetsky said in a 2016 interview, was put on him in the hope of reducing the athletes’ suspensions.

Walden said the doctor’s prior offences and the accusations made about the punishing environment Tutberidze creates for skaters made them prime targets for U.S. investigators.

“They have someone who has a disciplinary history with performance-enhancing drugs already, and you have an incredibly controversial coach,” he said.

“The FBI and Department of Justice, I think, are going to be looking very hard at the doctor and the coach to see if they can piece together the evidence.”

Tutberidze and Shvetsky have not been charged with any wrongdoing and Reuters has no evidence of their possible role in Valieva’s positive doping test.

Tutberidze and Shvetsky did not respond to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on Reuters inquiries about whether there was an active investigation.

LANDING QUADS

Tutberidze is a formidable presence. The willowy 47-year-old in sombre trench coats is a striking presence rinkside and in the kiss-and-cry area where figure skaters receive their scores.

Tutberidze, who told state television on Saturday she was certain Valieva was “clean and innocent”, has Russian parents going to great lengths to have her train their children.

Russian Olympian Yulia Lipnitskaya was 10 years old when she and her mother drove the 1,800 kilometres (1,120 miles) between Yekaterinburg and Moscow to see Tutberidze. Lipnitskaya and her mother had agreed that if Tutberidze refused to train her, she would quit the sport, Russia’s Channel One reported.

Reuters was unable to reach Lipnitskaya or her mother for comment.

Her skaters are among the only ones in women’s competition who can execute quadruple jumps.

Younger skaters may have an advantage with the quad because their narrow hips and shoulders could help them to rotate faster in the air, Ithaca College biomechanics expert Deborah King said. 

Some of Tutberidze’s skaters have medalled at the Games but retired within the next Olympic cycle. Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva, gold and silver medallists at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games, have since left the sport. Lipnitskaya, a team gold medallist in Sochi at the age of 15, retired in 2017.

Igor Lyutikov, who coached Valieva as an eight-year-old and briefly worked with Tutberidze, praised the coach in an interview with Reuters in Moscow.

He said her strict training methods, which kept athletes and coaching staff on their toes, had revolutionised the sport.

Lyutikov pointed out that athletes could choose whether to be subjected to her training methods. He recalled that when Tutberidze “came out every day as if on cue, nobody relaxed.”

“No one is forcing you,” he said. “But if you want to jump, you need to work, you need to grind away.”

CHAMPION SACRIFICES

Liptniskaya, who skated to Schindler’s List in a dazzling red coat at the Sochi Olympics, helping Russia to gold in the team event, announced her retirement in 2017 at the age of 19, citing a long struggle with anorexia.

Tutberidze said in a 2014 interview that Lipnitskaya’s diet consisted of powdered nutrients when she needed to lose weight.

Tutberidze said in a rare interview with Russia’s Channel One in December that she kicked out Alina Zagitova from her training group because “she had begun to get lazy”.

Zagitova, who at 15 became Olympic champion in South Korea, could return on one condition, Tutberidze said.

“The condition was that her mother would not live in Moscow and practically not visit until an Olympic medal,” she said in the interview. Zagitova did not reply to a request for comment.

The coach previously has admitted her harshness in the pursuit of gold.

“Strictness and harshness are present at training sessions because sometimes I’m incredibly frustrated when an athlete is at training but can do much better,” she said in the interview.

“If I didn’t do that, the athlete wouldn’t have the medals and the joy of stepping on the podium.”

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Beijing, Luc Cohen in New York and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow; Additional reporting by Steve Keating, Chang-Ran Kim and Iain Axon; Editing by Leela de Kretser)

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