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Behind coveted medals: Severe abuse in youth athletics

By Manasa Sriraj Apr. 7, 2022

Ellie Kim Art

Following the development that an endurance-enhancing drug was detected in her December 2021 doping test, 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva was almost stripped of several achievements in the Beijing Winter Olympics, including the record of the first female Olympian to land a quadruple jump, a gold medal in team figure skating and a chance to represent her country in individual figure skating. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) simply postponed Valieva’s medal ceremonies, allowing her to participate in the individual figure skating event.


Typically for failed doping tests, athletes face punishments such as heavy fines, being prohibited from competing for up to four years or having their awards rescinded. However, the CAS did not penalize Valieva for her positive result, citing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s “protected persons'' condition—which states that athletes under the age of 16 may face reduced consequences for doping . They also added that the release of Valieva’s test results may have been faulty, and a ban from the Olympics could cost the young athlete her career. While Valieva’s age stopped her from facing severe consequences in this case, young athletes are often subject to more abuse and mistreatment, as incidents in environments ranging from large-scale sporting events to recreational sports clubs have shown.


As stated by Vox, Valieva’s coach Eteri Tutberidze has a history of forcing her younger students to take performance enhancing drugs, train for 12 hours a day despite injuries and severely limit food intake—sometimes so strictly that they develop eating disorders— in order to suppress puberty-related weight gain. However, Tutberidze has gained international acclaim for shaping a number of her students into international champions before they turned 18, prompting sports organizations and audiences to overlook her coaching methods—despite so many of her students retiring extremely young and opening up about their experiences under Tutberidze to the media.


Abuse of child athletes can also take more extreme forms and is not limited to professional sports. Human Rights Watch describes that physical and sexual assault of young athletes under the premise of improving their physical and mental strength is rampant in Japan. This has contributed to increased psychological trauma among Japanese youth: For instance, the 17-year-old captain of an Osaka high school’s boys basketball team committed suicide in 2012 after being repeatedly beaten by his coach. NBC accounts how McKayla Maroney and other members of the USA Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team gave testimonies about being molested as children by their team physician, Larry Nassar. As detailed in the documentary “Athlete A,” the gymnasts were also overworked, harshly berated for gaining weight and slapped for making mistakes in their routine by coaches, with supervisors turning a blind eye from these practices to avoid damaging USA Gymnastics’s reputation. Similarly, in November 2021, former male athletes from the University of Michigan and Ohio State University— representing sports including football, basketball and wrestling—collectively led a demonstration highlighting the sexual assault they endured from their team doctors during checkups.


According to psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, the widespread expectation that children must unconditionally obey the adults in their lives makes younger makes younger athletes almost powerless against coaches and administrators; child athletes’ allegations of coach misconduct are often neglected or invalidated because they challenge coaches’ long-held authority. As seen in the Gymnastics case, sports federations’ primary intention is often winning medals, which protects their public image and making money—even if it means allowing abusive coaches to continue working with youth.


“Student-athletes are taught to look up to and learn from coaches just because they are older and told to accept coaches’ statements as absolute. This hierarchical culture often alienates young athletes that see certain matters differently than their coaches, allowing coaches to compel young athletes into taking actions they may not agree with,” Cooper Rosenberg ’22 said.


The Conversation reports that since older athletes have a better understanding of their rights and the seriousness of assault as well as direct answerability for cheating allegations, they are less likely to remain silent about abuse from their coaches and peers.

This makes athlete abuse less common in environments with higher minimum age requirements. Sports with unions, including Major League Baseball and the National Football League, also have an advantage in combating athlete mistreatment: The combined strength of their athletes’ testimonies and influence helps raise awareness about this issue and prompt change. Due to sexism, sexual assault occurs much more frequently in female-dominated sports than in male-dominated sports. This has contributed to the creation of organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation, which works to break barriers that prevent more females from becoming involved in athletics—including harassment.


“Children cannot recognize the signs of abuse as quickly as adults, preventing them from reporting abuse. By increasing young athletes’ access to authorities and raising awareness about how common young athlete mistreatment is, we can help end this currently unchecked cycle of harassment,” an anonymous student said.


Capable of improving physical and mental health and encouraging socialization and collaboration, sports are widely considered a keystone activity of childhood.

But until further acknowledgments and actions are made by athletics federations to stop the abuse of child athletes—whether they are world champions or members of recreational teams—this common occurrence may continue to overshadow the benefits of sports for youth around the world.
 

About the Contributors


Mansana Sriraj

Feature World Editor


Manasa Sriraj is a sophomore at Leland High School and the Charger Account's Feature World page editor. Manasa's passions include playing and composing songs on the guitar, stumping others with card tricks and geography trivia, engineering Rube-Goldberg machines out of Legos and other household objects, and playing board games with their family. They also love experimenting with new recipes, shooting hoops, and fantasizing about being a crime investigator in the FBI.



Ellie Kim

Artist


Ellie Kim is currently a junior at Leland High School and is an artist for The Charger Account. Her hobbies include reading, drawing, and spending time with friends.

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