Bullying and Abuse In Figure Skating is widespread and well documented. Skating is an alluring, attractive, and glamorous world. A place you fancy to be a part of, with all its charms and enticements. But every success needs a sacrifice and in figure skating, it is more than just a ‘sacrifice’. There is a dark side that is easily camouflaged by the immense fame and perks attached to the sport. It’s similar to those practices experienced in Gymnastics.
This dark side is completely ignored by most of the parties because this wickedness occurs during the struggle to becoming a star. There is hardly anyone who does not experience it, especially the female athletes during the span of their career. The culture of bullying in figure skating is felonious and a foe to the sport and athletes.
It can be in various forms and on various levels. Some organizations and authorities take it for granted and this ignorance leads to ruin the entire careers of many young aspiring skaters. We looked at some root causes of bullying and sexual abuse in figure skating and where it seems to come from. Bullying comes from power imbalances between coach and student, older boys partnering with younger girls, pressure from parents due to life sacrifices, and potentially lack of protection and reporting structure from the ISU.
Figure skaters usually come into the limelight at a very young age, they compete at the junior level when they are around 10, 11 years old, and at the elite level at the age of 15, 16. Some even achieve this feat as young as 13. Skaters are going through a remarkable amount of stress and pressure all the time and they do not know how to deal with it. They are just kids after all and to achieve a successful skating career, they too sacrifice many things in their lives at a very young age.
They sacrifice the most precious part, their childhood, with intense training, strict diet plans, and a very restricted routine. This is the time when these skaters are the most vulnerable and exposed to bullies and abuse.
At this age, young skaters have no idea how to react and they usually keep everything inside, and never speak out about bullies and lewd things happen to them. This makes creates stress and depression which damages their careers. Some skaters, who try to move on and forget the indelible incidents, maintain silence and somehow compromise with the situation. In other words, skaters are so afraid they do not speak out and when they gather the courage to speak out in public, it’s all too late.
What Are The Causes of Bullying and Abuse in Figure Skating
There are various causes of bullying and abuse in this sport, but the major cause is the power imbalances at various levels of the system. And the worst part is, the system is providing the environment to let these problems prevail. Power imbalances can be between skaters and coaches, skaters and administrators, and minors to elite skaters.
The power imbalances can be due to the age difference, designation, or seniority. In any case, people who are considered to be less powerful or less authoritative are the victims. In figure skating, there is also a culture of not questioning your coach at any point in your training and your coach’s words would be last. Even parents do not put a check and balance to coaches and even to fellow athletes.
The trust that coaches get from people and especially from parents is misused and exploited. And now some of the victims have spoken out in public to expose the harassers and assaulters. The following are already documented reports of bullying and sexual abuse.
Jessica Shuran Yu, Coaching Abuse in China
Jessica is a 2017 Southeast Asian Champion and two times National Champion of Singapore. Recently in a Guardian newspaper article, by Sean Ingle, Jessica pleads with the International Olympic Committee to stand up and support young girls in the sport. Born and raised in China, she describes her experience by being hit with a skate guard if mistakes were made and also being kicked with the toe pick that pierced the skin and left scarring.
The article reports that the abuse began when she was 11 years old and intensified once she reached puberty at 14. Young girls will put on weight as they reach this stage in their life, it’s natural. Growing by 15lbs/6.6kg is normal as the body produces fat to develop the hips, stomach, and breasts. Young skaters are therefore placed on a strict diet, with back to back on-ice and off- ice training schedules to burn calories.
Certain countries have been called out for unjustified pressure on their figure skaters and gymnastics teams. The closed nature of their political systems muffles any cries for help. Say anything and you have lost your promising career, so many skaters like Jessica have held this in, until recently.
These are not attacks out of the blue on the street, where you might call the police or ambulance. Instead, this is consistent, elongated humiliation, under the radar of the status quo. A horrible influence on vulnerable young minds.
Bullying and Abuse in Figure Skating Exists in Russia too
Russia is no innocent bystander. There are many commentators speaking out about the aggressive training regimes to the point, where young girls are sacrificing their bodies and driven to breaking point. Discussed briefly in our “Are Russian Skaters the Best” article, skaters have commented on the use of drugs to get through the program.
This unlimited schedule of training, within the 3 dedicated skating camps (Dynamo, CSKA, and Sambo 70), places huge forces on young girls’ bones (Anna Shcherbakova broken leg) which are still in development. Even their star Alina Zagitova took a break from figure skating due to the pressure forced on her about her weight.
When Russian Glamor Magazine interviewed Alina about any food restrictions, she omitted that they don’t even drink water!
“No, I don’t like chips. Well, perhaps it’s because I don’t eat them. I like sweets—chocolate, candy. Generally, I restricted myself during the Olympic Games. I was, you can say, not drinking water at all. That is, we just rinsed our mouths and spit it all out.”Alina Zagitova, Russian Glamour.
Some call it a “child factory”, with Eteri Tutberidze (recently awarded Best Coach ISU) at the center of generating a wave of kid superstars, who seem to last just 3 seasons. Ex Eteri coached skaters have said, whether you are tired or injured, you still go to the ice and work. Your weight is checked every morning at the ice rink. The coach is obsessed with weight, and if you can’t meet the target you are dropped for a younger skater.
Yulia Lipnitskaya, the star of the Sochi 2014 Olympics, came out and stated that the coaching staff of Eteri caused her to develop anorexia. This was apparently again due to the weigh-ins and constant humiliation in front of other skaters.
Sarah Abitbol: Victim of Sexual Abuse
It gets even more serious and goes beyond bullying and abuse for figure skaters. Among them is the former French figure skater Sarah Abitbol. The 10 ten times French national champion pair figure skater, accused her coach of sexual abuse when she was only 15 years old. Her coach was a former French figure skating champion and national team official, Gilles Beyer.
Sarah spoke out in an interview after almost thirty years when the incident happens. She finally got the courage to publicly share what she was going through and how she was raped by a person who she had trusted as her coach and who would guide her to glory. She told in the interview that she was sleeping in her bed when Beyers came into her room and started kissing her.
Beyers even told her to keep this a ‘secret’ and Sarah felt guilty ever since as she would have done something wrong. But in reality, she was forced to be in that lewd situation. All these years, she spoke to no one except for the French ministry in 2008 where nobody took it seriously and Beyers continued to coach young skaters.
Who would have believed a junior skater against a famous former skater and coach? Again in this situation power imbalance is the major cause that allowed it to happen. A coach in figure skating has every right to do whatever he wants with young skaters. And the teenagers, on the other hand, are feared to report such incidents as they think it would harm their career.
In the case of Sarah, Beyer never hesitated to do whatever he had done, with a 15-year-old girl. He knew the girl would not have the courage to speak out and if she would report it, no one would believe her. The flawed system has damaged many individuals and their careers. People like Gilles Beyer are so used to doing such things that Sarah was just another victim for him and never cared what would happen next. Nothing really happened as Sarah Abitbol spoke out after almost three decades.
After the interview of Abitbol sparked chaos in the French sporting world, Beyers confessed that he had inappropriate relationships with Sarah and he apologized to her. He was removed from his coaching post in a local club but never charged with any misconduct even after he himself confessed it.
Whereas, three other women accused him of inappropriate actions and sexual abuse. Anitbol wants him to be behind bars, wants him to face the punishment of his misconduct and she is hopeful that other victims will also come out during the prosecution against Beyes.
Figure Skating Coach or a Predator
There are many bullying and abusive incidents reported against the coaches in recent years and many elite-level athletes are now coming in front to protect other young kids. In 2019, another monster, a predator coach Richard Callaghan was banned for life by the US center for Safesport for various sexual abuse but because of the flawed system, his ban was later reduced to three years by an arbitrator who believed that he had no other choice.
Callaghan has a long career of coaching numerous successful skaters among them are Todd Eldridge, the 1996 world champion and six times US national champion, and Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic gold medallist. In such a long successful career, Callaghan might have thought he could easily get away with such claims in the past but recently there are a substantial amount of victims speaking out to share their bad experience.
Coaching Crimes of Callaghan
The first accusation that came against Callaghan was from Craig Maurizi back in 1999. He reported to the US Center for Safesport that he was sexually abused and assaulted by Callaghan in 1976 when he was a young skater of only 13 years old. But this allegation was dismissed by the governing body by saying too much time had passed.
Another skater Adam Schmidt filled a lawsuit in Aug 2019 against Callaghan with the accusation of sexual misconduct against him when he was 14 in 1999, around the same time when Maurizi reported about his experience. It shows that Callaghan was so confident that he would get away with it very easily. There are several other claims against Callaghan due to which he was initially banned for life, but unfortunately, these predators know how to play with the law.
These incidents also show how figure skating organizations and clubs are risking the lives of young skaters to these monsters to get medals in competitive tournaments. And it is also clear that the governing body whose only responsibility is to protect athletes have completely failed to do so.
Sexual Abuse from Figure Skating Partners
Bullying and Physical abuse in figure skating is not limited to coaches on athletes. Young skaters are not even safe from fellow skaters.
This is maybe because of the age difference between male and female skaters. Usually, girls are in their teens when they compete at the elite level, whereas male skaters are above the age of 19. Therefore, victims of sexual abuse are often very young teenage skaters.
Among them is Ashley Elizabeth Wagner, one of the most successful female figure skaters in the US. The three times national champion, the 2016 world silver medallist, said in an interview in August 2019 that her fellow skater John Coughlin, a two time US pair champion, sexually assaulted her after a party at a national team camp in Colorado in June 2008, when she was just 17 and Coughlin was 22.
When the party ended she stayed with friends at the house, so she felt safe and comfortable. She mentioned in her interview how she felt the presence of Coughlin in her bed that woke her up. She said she was pretending to fall asleep and Coughlin kissed her on her neck and moved her hands around her body.
Ashley Wagner was so terrified by the behavior that she did not have any idea what to do and was hoping that John would stop soon and would leave. But it did not happen and she had to make a decision. Wagner said that she grabbed his hands told him to stop.
Ashley said that we are very far behind in making the sport safe for every young kid who aspires to be a figure skater in the future. There is a scarcity of male figure skaters, and hence the female skater would do anything to get herself a partner, this creates power imbalances among the skaters as girls have to compromise on many things. Therefore some male figure skaters consider themselves dominant and superior.
Why did Ashley Wagner Hold The Story back
John Coughlin was found dead from suicide (Jan 19) one month after being suspended from the allegations. But why did Ashley only speak out six months after his death? Why too did Bridget Namiotka, another accuser, mention him four months after? It was down to pure fear and lack of empowerment – something the MeToo movement changed forever and provided confidence to every woman to speak out.
Here Ashley is quoted speaking to USA Today with Christine Brennan. Click the link below the quote to read the full article.
Over the past few months, as I decided to tell this story, I wrestled with using John’s name. He was a prominent figure skater who died by suicide in January, and so I fully understand the issues with naming him. But a name can shape so much of how my story is perceived. Without it, I know people will question my credibility. But this is not about a name. This is about the environment that allowed for that act to happen. I want the issue to feel real to people, and for them to understand the dynamics of my sport, where uncomfortable power imbalances thrive to this day.eu.usatoday.com
Wagner, who no longer skates competitively, credited the #MeToo movement and Coughlin’s suspension as her reasons for coming forward now after “completely blocking out” the alleged assault, during which she said, “I was absolutely paralyzed in fear.” She did not come forward immediately partly because “I was a young skater coming up through the ranks in a judged sport. I didn’t want to stir the pot. I didn’t want to add anything to my career that would make me seem undesirable or dramatic. I didn’t want to be known in figure skating as the athlete who would cause trouble. And I genuinely didn’t feel like anyone would listen to me anyway. Everyone really liked this guy. I even liked him.”
#MeToo Movement provides female skaters with a common determination
We briefly mentioned Wagner was not the only skater who accused him of sexual abuse, Coughlin’s skating partner Bridget Namiotka also said that she was sexually abused by him when she was only 14 years old and he was four years older. She alleged she was abused for two years and 9 others were also abused by him.
Morgan Cipres, French figure skater, a two-times Olympian, is facing a probe by the US police over sexual abuse of a 13-year-old girl in Dec 2017. The case has reopened after the police received new information regarding the accused. He was allegedly sending lewd pictures to a girl who was skating at the same ice rink. The mother of the victim reported it to the US Center for Safesport. Since then Cipres is under investigation.
Being a skating partner does not mean in any way that someone has given you consent of doing whatever you want and desire. There certainly needs to be set limitations and protection in this sport. Would you really let your teenage daughter spend time with boys/ men 4 years older? These social circles don’t exist at home, but they certainly do during skating competitions where there are flights, meals, and hotels. If you read Ashley’s article I think she spoke about this so well.
I do hope recent events on the world stage (MeToo) is a baseline for all female skaters to feel strong and not alone. You never know unless you are in this situation and it’s easy to cast an opinion. However, we are empowered to feel confident in being listened to and to break our silence to expose these criminals. They must be pulled out of their protected industry status quo and strung up.
Figure Skating ISU Governing Body Has Failed?
There is a clear pattern here, that young skaters/ minors are not fully protected by the law. In fact, the law somehow assists these predators to execute their disgusting plans. Minors are almost helpless against them and when they experience a horrible situation they do not know how to deal with it.
There is no one in the ISU who can be directly contacted when an incident occurs. There is no example of the accused being punished severely for what they have done in the past with young kids. The approach for tackling bullying and abuse in figure skating is reactive rather than proactive, the victims have to report it otherwise it fades away (but not for the victim). The environment should be made to eliminate any such incidents even before they happen.
To counter claims we have heard from the skating world, the ISU does publish its rules in its Constitution & General Regulations 2018. Article 5 (Harassment and Abuse) and Article 6 (Reporting Procedures) provides clear instructions. Yet are these rules and commitments hailed and pushed out hard for everyone in the sport?
6.1 Anyone affected by or who has observed an alleged incident of harassment or abuse during the period of an ISU Event or any other ISU activity may either file a Statement of Complaint against the Alleged Offender in accordance with the ISU Disciplinary Rules of Procedure (currently ISU Communication No. 2001) or report the incident in writing or verbally to one of the following persons:
– The ISU Representative for the ISU Event;
– The ISU Event Coordinator;
– The Chair of the ISU Medical Commission;
– The designated ISU Ombudsperson for Harassment and Abuse, currently Ms. Christine Cardis, ISU Anti-Doping Manager (firstname.lastname@example.org), who will also provide guidance to any individual regarding whether and how to report to the ISU observed or suspected harassment or abuse, in particular of an athlete;
– If a Skater is involved in the incident: any ISU Athletes Commission member.
There may be means to report harrassnent, bullying, and abuse in figure skating, but is it really followed up fast, is there any ignorance built into the organization? Are coaches screened regularly who in particular work with children and teenagers?
Relation Aggression Bullying
There are many other types of bully common in figure skating. Relational aggression is one type of bullying that athletes often use. Rather than being aggressive, they call someone with weird names, socially boycotting them. The person is humiliated by whispering, gossiping, and blanking even when the person is sitting next to you. These groups plan outings to exclude and ignore one individual and do not allow them to even have a conversation. This type of bullying is usually unnoticed.
Relation aggression is usually seen to be applied to a person with a different ethnicity or race. It is even faced by skaters who come from different cities or belong to a different class. The people who face this type of bully are so stressed that they have to leave the sport they love because there is no one in the entire club to become a partner in the ice dance class.
This can also take form during coaching, as any girl reaching puberty who gains weight, who then struggles with jumps, is harrassed directly in front of other skaters, a fact mentioned by Jessica Shuran Yu.
This indeed is a life-threatening situation, in the beginning, its mental stress, but the extreme could be a suicide attempt. Skating is all they know and want. The training and schooling of figure skaters is so tough that the only friends they make are the ones in the figure skating school. And if you feel an odd one in your gathering then it would become a survival issue.
Skaters Abused by their Parents
Figure skaters are often seen as a material with jewels rather than a person with feelings by their parents and coaches. Figure skating is indeed an expensive sport; training and coaching of a skater require lots of investment and time. Therefore, parents see this as an opportunity and want their kids to be at the top level all the time which puts them in enormous stress.
Some kids have to pursue this as a profession because their parents have invested a lot in them, so they get no freedom of choosing their path. This is another type of bullying and abuse kids face in the figure skating world. The victims of this abuse are at risk of depression, anxiety, and anorexia.
I composed this article, to try and push the Figure Skating side of the story, since the recent UK gymnastics scandal has taken the news across National TV stations. I haven’t seen the same for skaters and it’s not reported to the same extent. I urge anyone actually affected by the these events to speak out. Find someone you trust please and regardless of the status of the attacker, expose them.
I feel sickened by the events and my heart goes out to those affected. There will be more to unfold I’m sure. ‘Bullying and Abuse in Figure Skating’ is mentioned numerous times in the article because I want it to stand out for search on the net. I haven’t used any pictures of skaters to maintain the strict tone.
However, personally I am assured that 99.99% of coaches, staff, and fellow skaters are genuinely good people and are working hard to uphold their sports values. I have the utmost respect for those I am in contact with via Instagram and I wish you all the best in your progression to be a future star, whilst never being held back.
There is help and access out there if you don’t have confidence with those around you.
This Sexual Harassment link provides a good list of services in the UK.
USA: National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or USA.GOV
If anyone wishes to me to add contact details for further organisations, please contact me.