Teenage figure skater Kamila Valieva has faced intense scrutiny at the Beijing Olympics, but the media has also been drawn to coach Eteri Tutberidze – someone who would otherwise have been a much less prominent presence.
Tutberidze is a renowned trainer of Olympic champions, a coach whose conveyor belt of talent has functioned relentlessly in recent years.
But as Tutberidze now faces questions over her methods in light of Valieva’s unfortunate situation, we look at some of the key facts surrounding the 47-year-old.
Who is Eteri Tutberidze?
Tutberidze was born in Moscow in 1974 as the youngest of five children in a large Georgian family. She began skating at the age of four but saw her own dreams of major success hampered by injury and financial issues.
She switched to ice shows and at the age of 18 moved to the USA, participating in ‘Ice Capades’ entertainment shows. However, Tutberidze endured passport issues and was also caught up in the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City in 1995.
On returning to Moscow in 1999, she was forced to work in a small ice circus but finally received a position as coach in Zelenograd (Moscow region) in 2003, before joining an Olympic Reserve School in 2008 which became part of the ‘Sambo-70’ youth sports network.
How successful is Tutberidze?
Tutberidze was perhaps unfamiliar to many figure skating fans several years ago, but everything changed in 2014 with the emergence of Russian talent Yulia Lipnitskaya.
Under Tutberidze’s tutelage, Lipnitskaya mesmerized the world on her way to winning Olympic gold in the team event in Sochi at the age of just 15, and added a world championship silver to her name. She later split with Tutberidze and retired at the age of 19.
Tutberidze soon brought the world another star, Evgenia Medvedeva, who remained unbeaten for two successive seasons.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang were Tutberidze’s shot at glory with two of her pupils, Alina Zagitova and Medvedeva, who claimed gold and silver respectively.
The following year, Zagitova claimed the world title, becoming the most decorated singles skater in Russian history, before announcing a career hiatus in 2019.
Since then, young Russian stars coached by Tutberidze have been formidable, including Alena Kostornaia winning the European gold in 2020 and Anna Shcherbakova claiming gold at the 2021 World Championships.
Tutberidze coached all three Russian women’s singles skaters in Beijing this year, where Shcherbakova won gold and Alexandra Trusova won silver.
In eight years, Tutberidze has nurtured four Olympic champions (including Kamila Valieva’s team gold in Beijing) and three world champions.
What role has Tutberidze played in Valieva’s rise?
Valieva was reportedly on the verge of quitting figure skating before joining Tutberidze’s camp in Sambo-70. Born in 2006, the youngster had moved to Moscow from Kazan in 2012 and joined the ‘Moskvich’ sports school, where she changed three coaches but failed to find success, also suffering a leg injury in 2017.
But everything changed in 2018 when Tutberidze accepted Valieva into her training group, where she quickly established herself as one of the brightest skaters of her generation and arguably all-time.
As part of the ‘quad squad’, Valieva had entered the Beijing Olympics as the strong favorite for gold, having won every event she competed in during her first season in the senior ranks, setting multiple world records along the way.
Why do people claim Tutberidze is controversial?
Tutberidze has made revolutionary changes in ladies skating by raising a new ‘quad-generation’ who have enjoyed phenomenal success by including triple axels and various quad jumps.
However, with praise and admiration, Tutberidze has faced criticism and accusations of exploiting young talent and pushing young girls’ bodies to the limit.
Tutberidze has also been accused of an inability to work with more adult skaters, instead replacing one young champion with another in a conveyor belt of talent. The International Skating Union (ISU) is reportedly expected to raise the age limit for singles skaters, allowing them to enter senior events only after reaching 17.
Last year, Tutberidze was embroiled in a domestic spat with Olympic champion skater-turned-trainer Evgeni Plushenko, who took Kostornaia and Trusova into his camp. Tutberidze accused Plushenko of luring the girls with more attractive financial offers. But their cooperation with Plushenko turned out to be short-lived as they quickly returned to Tutberidze after their results nosedived.
What do Tutberidze’s skaters say?
Tutberidze’s skaters admit that the woman dubbed the ‘Snow Queen’ can be demanding, but supporters say this is the only way to raise champions.
The competition inside the Russian national team is intense, with dozens of skaters fighting for just three spots at major international competitions.
Newly-crowned Olympic champion Shcherbakova, 17, said she has “achieved high results together” with the coach when asked about Tutberidze in Beijing, having been training with her since age nine.
Neither Kostornaia, nor the likes of Medvedeva or Trusova have ever mentioned any abusive or brutal methods of training, even when they left Tutberidze’s camp.
Notably, all of these skaters returned to Tutberidze after displaying worse results elsewhere.
Why is Tutberidze at the center of Valieva’s Beijing scandal?
After it was reported that Valieva had tested positive for the banned heart drug trimetazidine in a sample taken at the Russian championships in December, attention inevitably turned to the figure skater’s entourage, considering her status as a minor.
That clearly includes Tutberidze. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have both launched investigations into Valieva’s team. Tutberidze has not spoken at length about the case in public, but did say she believes Valieva to be entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.
Tutberidze also came under scrutiny for her reaction to Valieva’s disappointing performance in the women’s free skate routine on Thursday, when she fell several times, ending her medal hopes. Tutberidze reportedly questioned why Valieva had seemingly given up during the routine.
Weighing in on Friday, IOC president Thomas Bach claimed Tutberidze had created a “chilling atmosphere.”
What have people said in Tutberidze’s defense?
Those comments from Bach were condemned by Russian officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Chernyshenko and Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin.
Chernyshenko said Bach should not “weave his own fictional narrative.” Matytsin added that “the personality of a trainer largely determines the results of the athletes. We have gold in the [figure skating] team competition, gold and silver in the individual competition, a silver medal in dancing, I hope that there will be medals in the pairs as well.”
Those comments were added to by Sambo-70 director Renat Layshev. “That’s nonsense. This is just a continuation of an artificially made story they invented themselves,” said Layshev.
“Tutberidze is strict and demanding, but nothing more. Achieving high results requires stellar discipline. Eteri Georgievna is a brilliant teacher.”