Interview with Kiira Korpi (part 1)

Photo credit: Kiira Korpi

Kiira Korpi is one of the most accomplished Finnish skaters of all time: together with Susanna Poykio and Laura Lepisto, she helped put Finland on the map in the second half of the 2000s. Her lengthy career boasts two appearances at the Olympic Games (2006, 2010), 3 European medals (two bronzes in 2007 and 2011, silver in 2012), 2 Grand Prix wins and multiple Grand Prix medals. She is the first and only Finnish figure skater to have competed at the Grand Prix Final (2012/2013). An unfortunate series of injuries from 2013 on sadly cut her illustrious career short.

A star in her native Finland, Kiira has dedicated herself to advocacy work following the end of her athletic career. She is currently finalizing a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts (with a focus on Psychology) at The New School of New York and is a vocal supporter of children’s rights and the fair treatment of athletes.

In this interview conducted back in November, I had the honor to talk to Kiira about her decision to become an activist and her views on the present-day state of figure skating and the problems plaguing the sport. Additionally, she also shares her outlook for the future and her vision on how to make sport a fair and safe place for everyone involved.

Claudia de Leeuw. First of all, how did you decide to make this career switch and dedicate yourself to advocacy and activism for athletes’ and children’s rights?

 Kiira Korpi. It happened by chance – in 2016,  I was on a TV show where ex-athletes talked about their careers, so I had the chance to shed some insight into the brutal reality of figure skating training culture at the top level.

 This appearance sparked some interest and I was offered to write a book. In the beginning, I was like “No I’m too young to write a memoir”! But then, I thought about it some more and found a great sports journalist who was willing to help me with writing. With the book, I wanted to shed some light on what is happening behind the scenes of the sport, and I expressed that in a very honest and authentic way by also sharing my own struggles.

 The book Kiira – Ehjäksi Särkynyt (Kiira – Broken into Wholeness) was a turning point for public conversation in Finland – discussion is growing and news keep popping up about the systemic problems and how this kind of abusive coaching is normalized. I  started my work as an advocate for ethical issues in skating after the book was published in Finland last September.

In elite sports, there is still a myth that you have to endure destructive dynamics in order to be at the top level but scientific evidence does not support these harmful methods. I realized that I misled myself to believe I’m one of the few who went through this but now I realize how common these problems are. I hope I can serve as a voice not only for the children but also for that  99.9% of athletes who we don’t hear about – those who dedicated their whole life to training and put their health on the line but never made it big. They seem invisible because we only see the athletes who go through the brutal system and reach the top – this creates an illusion that a system works well. Skaters themselves tend to rationalize they needed these abusive methods to succeed. I, for example, kept telling myself that a skater needs harsh training to be competitive but now I see it the opposite way –  that I succeeded in spite of the abusive methods, not because of them. 

C. So, the book was your main motivator?

 K. Yes!  A lot of the feedback came from young people who felt the book articulated their own thoughts and feelings perfectly. Girls as young as 11 and 12 (and some boys as well) have sent me messages of gratitude saying they loved the book and understand themselves much better after reading it. In that sense, I could not have hoped for a better outcome. It warms my heart to see how young people keep reading the book even after 1,5 years after it was published. Now I’m also working on the English translation of the book.

 But there was also some negative feedback from the skating community since some people were a little unhappy with me talking so openly about some of the problems in skating (like eating disorders) and how common they are. They thought it was going to hurt the reputation of the sport because I was so honest. 

 I think the overall attitude is changing in the grassroots levels of sports because people realize I was not an isolated case and similar experiences are common in Finland – recently there has been more news about sexual or psychological abuse in the skating community than ever before. These kinds of stories come not only from Finland but also Sweden, the USA, Iceland, and Germany.

 I think there have been very inefficient ways from the Federation or the Olympic Committee or the safe sport organization to intervene  – what really worries me is that even if they have known about this serious abuse going on, they have not done enough to protect the athletes. This also goes for other sports, so I think there is a crisis in the integrity of the sports system in Finland. Experts have said there seems to be a gray area when it comes to children’s and athletes’ rights inside the sports clubs, and how efficiently we’re able to monitor those.

 C. It seems that in sports, there is such a heavy emphasis on the medals that sometimes coaches can get away with questionable approaches – from overtraining that is so overwhelmingly common (and can lead to serious injuries), to much more severe misconduct. Why do you think everyone prefers to turn a blind eye to such behavior as long as the results keep coming, instead of question and confront it?

K. There are many reasons for that. First, sports organizations want to keep their public image “clean” at any cost in order to not lose members and sponsors. Second, there is a very strong culture of fear and silence, so these subjects are treated as taboo. As an athlete, you don’t feel like you have so much power compared to the coach or the Federation, so you automatically learn to be silent and not criticize or question too much. I am sure there have been instances in the past when skaters tried to provide criticism but were met with silencing efforts or have been told that they were crazy or too sensitive. I have now personally experienced this, too.

 As a result, athletes grow up to think it is they who are weak or wrong. Take, for example, the problem with injuries –  many athletes end up thinking that injuries are their fault or it’s because their physique is lacking, or they are mentally weak… when you grow up with such a mindset, you never take time to think the problem may lie elsewhere. When a skater is afraid to compete or performs badly, there can always be an underlying reason –  you never consider that it could be more complex than being mentally weak, maybe the training process was flawed and led to injuries, or the training damaged the athlete’s self-esteem… 

 Another possible reason is how journalists tend to cover the sport. Don’t get me wrong, they do a great job at reporting the competitions but globally, they are not so much known for challenging and criticizing the system. 

Finally, parents were also used to tolerating these unhealthy cultures but recently they are starting to wake up and question whether this is the correct way, and maybe it isn’t normal that their kids come home crying every other day. I think they are just now starting to realize that this isn’t what good coaching should be anymore.

 C. These problems are especially easy to identify in Figure Skating since reputation with the judges and a favorable relationship with the local federation are essential. I can understand if a skater is in such a position, they may feel pressured to accept everything coming their way without much questioning, even if they disagree internally.

K. Yes, exactly, it is a common mindset. When I was competing I would have never ever dared to question. Yes, I was thinking that maybe there is a more humane way to achieve success but then you grow up with the installed status quo that pain and injuries are a normal part of sports. And everyone around you and the media is just praising that and it makes everything much more difficult and sadder.

I don’t know about other countries but in Finland, for example, if a skater is on the national team, they need to sign an agreement with the Federation. I have been told this agreement contains some strange and unclear clauses that basically forbid the skater from “harming” the reputation of the Federation in any way. It might be extremely difficult for national team skaters to talk about serious systemic injustices because they are afraid to break these clauses which may also lead to financial penalties.

This reminds me, many journalists who come outside from sports refer to organized elite sports as a religious cult: you cannot criticize the leaders and if you do so or you leave the community, you will be abandoned, blamed or shamed publicly.

Kiira Korpi competing at the 2010 Olympics. Photo credit: Brett Barden/Skate Today.

C. Do you think it will help to redefine the meaning of success in sports? At this point, it is an extremely high stakes environment where results are perceived as the ultimate goal, to be achieved at every cost.

K. I guess we really need a big discussion around what success really is, and if the number of medals should be the only measure. Do we ever take the time to think about how broken this athlete is after receiving the medal or even worse, how many broken girls and boys are required in order to produce just one medalist? Because, you know, for the system to produce a few medalists in an individual sport like figure skating, it needs hundreds and thousands of skaters who never come close to the top. Many of them suffer the consequences. 

Values should be prioritized, too. The Federations and Olympic Committee have all these beautiful values listed on their websites – fair play, health, etc. but do they stick to them in practice? I don’t really think we are adhering to them and that’s what causes a lot of skaters and coaches to burn out. They feel like they have to turn into these robotic people trying to achieve machine-like qualities, and then the human behind all this is forgotten. It is like, they become a slave to the sporting machine and all their success and happiness is defined by the results they bring. I know this from experience, but some of the worst and best moments in my life have been those moments when I have achieved external success. I’ve also had moments when I thought that if I won a medal, I would be so happy, only to realize this was not the case later when my wish materialized.

 And finally, we are also lacking as a community in our sport – I wish we could connect and respect each other more, be happy for each other’s progress and achievements instead of turning sports into a combat zone.

C. Yes, any elite sport is so competitive that only a very select few reach the world level. There are thousands of children and adolescents who will be involved in sports, working just as hard and dreaming to get to that level but will never make it regardless. They end up in invisibility, and the possible consequences of intensive sports training from such a young age often go overlooked.

K. One of Larry Nassar’s former victims articulated this problem very well in a recent Time magazine interview: she admitted that nowadays she struggles not so much with the memories of the horrible sexual abuse of the doctor, but with the psychological abuse she endured from her coach for years. She felt brainwashed to think that the injuries were her fault and then said that people don’t realize how many broken girls the system needs in order to produce just one who can somehow survive it and become successful. It is really awful that no one ever looks beyond the success stories.

 In the New York Times, there was a video clip recently was about a long-distance runner who trained with one of the best coaches in the world (Alberto Salazar). And in his team, they totally ignored the health of the athletes – they just wanted them to be thinner. I continue to wonder endlessly why is such an ignorant attitude towards wellbeing so epidemic even on the highest levels –  those people didn’t even seem to realize that if a girl hasn’t had her period for years, this is a very bad sign – your bone density gets lower and then you start to get stress fractures, your bones break. Why wouldn’t the best running coach use the best nutrition and the best sources of sports psychologists, or science to back up his methods? It seems that even for the greatest coaches, a lot of their understanding is based on outdated facts. Or then they simply do not care if their athletes are like disposable products because they have enough material to always have new, fresh products at hand.

(continued in part 2 here: )


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