Bruises in the Rink – The Backstage Horrors of Figure Skating

Figure Skating can be best described as a sport in which athletes engage in artistic performances while skating on ice, which include jumps, spins, lifts, intricate footwork, and other freestyle movements. Although popular in the developed world, the sport enjoys unusual limelight, to say the least. It gains traction every four years, during the Winter Olympics, when it is one of the most popular sports, only to fade back into obscurity in the interim. Perhaps this has been the predominant fertilizer for the dark shadows growing behind the aesthetic grandeur of the sport. Take away the lights and the costumes, and gremlins alight.

Looking at the women figure skaters at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, at 25, Mariah Bell of the United States was one of the oldest entries. Kamila Valieva, the favourite for gold was just 15 years old. The other two podium favourites were Russian skaters of mere 17 years of age. Moreover, out of the last seven Olympic champions prior to Beijing, six were below the age of 18. The age of women skaters is continually declining. Younger girls are entering the senior arena today, as compared to the late 20th century. This has been mostly attributed to biology; younger girls tend to have lighter bodies than their older counterparts, making it easier to perform jumps. The last two Olympics cycles show an enhanced emphasis on gravity-defying jumps, and therefore younger girls are being pushed early to the senior arena, for, as Alysa Liu said, once girls hit puberty and start developing muscles, they have to learn to jump all over again.

While this is mildly alarming, what makes it more controversial is the way young girls are pushed to hit their peak early, and the methodical abuse and body shaming disguised as training. Only last year, Jessica Shuran Yu, a Singaporean figure skater revealed that she, along with other girls in her training club, had been repeatedly physically assaulted by their coaches when she started skating in China. Two years ago, two Swedish skaters went public with the abuse they faced ranging from the conventional body shaming to being compelled to compete with injuries. Recently, the French Skating Federation has been suspecting 21 coaches of some form of abuse or sexual assault. The United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand are also not exempt from such allegations.

However, this is just one half of the problem. Women figure skaters are obnoxiously sexualised, to put it mildly. In December 2019, Morgan Cipres, a French pair skater was accused of sending nude photos to a 13-year-old female skater. Going further back to January 2019, American pair skater John Coughlin was accused of sexual misconduct towards minors in three separate reports. One of his former pairs partners, Bridget Namiotka, and Ashley Wagner, a former U.S. champion, also accused him of sexual assault. Both of these instances have been discussed in more detail below. Coach Richard Callaghan has also been accused of sexual abuse by his students, both male and female and many of whom were stars of the 90s era.

These problems are further accentuated by the cold response given by Figure skating authorities. They look away with a shrug. Looking at the case of Morgan Cipres, in December 2019 it was reported that the United States Center for SafeSport was investigating him for the aforementioned allegations, which later forwarded all the findings of its investigation to the French Federation of Ice Sports. However, the French Federation of Ice Sports declined to take action against him citing lack of proof. SafeSport reopened its investigation in June 2020 and in December 2020, a third-degree felony charge was filed against him by the Florida State Attorney’s office. However, no conclusion is in sight, and Morgan Cipres himself seems to be in France.

Moving on to the case of John Coughlin, he was suspended by SafeSport in January 2019 following three accusations of sexual misconduct. A day later, he committed suicide. While United States Figure Skating officials advised SafeSport to complete the investigation, SafeSport removed the notification of his suspension from its website and there has been no news about the investigation since. His pairs partner, Bridget Namiotka, later stated that he sexually abused her for two years. Both these instances paint a bleak picture of the response of figure skating authorities towards such issues. Figure skaters do not have a reliable safety net.

Thus, the need to protect young female skaters is pressing. A very important step already in deliberation by the International Skating Union (ISU) is to increase the minimum age limit of the senior competitions to 17 years from the current age of 15. The proposal had first been submitted by Dutch officials in 2018; however, even after 4 years, there is no conclusion in sight. The slow procedure and high bureaucracy of ISU; and the indifferent responses authorities have given till now, necessitate individual nations to take steps to protect their athletes.

Committees independent of the Skating Federations of the countries can be set up with the authority to investigate and punish perpetrators. SafeSport, set up by the United States Government under the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 can be taken as an example. Other countries can also set up similar organisations or committees in their respective jurisdictions. Secondly, even SafeSport, a blessing as it may be, is severely underfunded and overburdened. Proper funding channels need to be established to sustain such organisations because their nature of work naturally invites backlash. Governments, as well as corporations could provide aid. Thirdly, while on the topic of committees, the ISU itself could also set up an internal committee to look into the safety of figure skaters, thereby providing a model where figure skaters could report such incidents while maintaining anonymity, if need be, and the committee could then investigate the accused person, be it a coach or a fellow peer.

Coming to the frame work already existing, the International Olympic Committee has come up with the Declaration of Athletes’ Rights and Responsibilities in a bid to empower athletes worldwide. Some of the rights recognised under this Declaration are the athletes’ right to be a part of a transparent, fair and clean sporting environment; to protection of mental and physical health; to report unethical behaviour without fear of retaliation; to due process, including right to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by an independent panel; to request a public hearing; and, to get an effective remedy. However, the key problem here is the lack of a strong administrative framework to support the Declaration. Setting up independent committees and panels facilitating reporting and investigating infringement of rights mentioned in this Declaration, and giving them the power to accord proportionate penalty will serve to provide another means of protection to female figure skaters. Furthermore, the World Players’ Association also came up with a Universal Declaration of Players’ Rights in 2019 as an endeavour to extend fundamental human rights to athletes and sportspersons. Pushing ISU as well as National Skating Federations to become a member of WPA and thus, signatory to the Universal Declaration of Players’ Rights will also add another layer of protection.

Thus, after taking into account all the aspects of the above discussion, it can be said that the most effective course of action would be to set a comprehensive legal framework, taking the aid of several nations, along with their skating federations as well as international authorities such as the ISU and IOC, so that the framework can hold good in the international arena; and to back it with a strong administrative authority, preferably consisting of the figure skating authorities, officials of the countries, and some athletes to ensure representation. This authority needs to be given the power to investigate such instances of abuse and to punish the perpetrators. Until a better safety net is in place, at least some of the above suggestions must be implemented.

Author: Pranjal Shah – a student of  Gujarat National Law University, in case of any queries please contact/write back to us via email vidushi@khuranaandkhurana.com or at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorney.

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