On March 20, 2020, Ukrainian figure skating community was deeply shocked and saddened to read the press release from the Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation (UFSF) on the ban and exclusion of Kateryna Dzytsiuk – Ivan Pavlov and their parents from its members. Furthermore, it was strongly recommended to ban them from access to any professional figure skating schools or ice rinks whatsoever.
Kateryna and Ivan are the current Ukrainian national champions, and Ivan, as a single skater, is a two-time Ukrainian national champion and a three-time Junior national champion, and he has represented Ukraine in dozens of international competitions showing steady growth during almost a decade.
Source: Dmytro Putintsev for ufsf.com.ua
The reason for the ban was stated as "a severe disciplinary violation by parents and skaters ... at the 2020 Junior World Championships" without any further explanation.
The harsh tone and lack of details raised not only eyebrows but also a number of questions. After an unexpected end of the career of Sofiia Nesterova – Artem Darenskyi in March, Kateryna and Ivan, a strong and promising pair, became the only pair that would be eligible to compete for Ukraine on a senior level next season. How severe the disciplinary violation should’ve been that it was worth destroying the only competitive couple in the country?
The author of these lines happened to be in Tallinn at that Junior World Championships as a member of the organizing team and witnessed the whole "disciplinary violation" in person. But before we get to the story, you should learn a couple of things important to understand its context.
Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation (UFSF) is not the organization you normally expect to see when you think about a sports federation. Ukraine was part of the USSR for 72 years, and inherited its sport organization system. In USSR, sports activities were fully governed and controlled by the state. Soviet sport governance system thus was a top-down hierarchy, where those on top have complete control over everything at the bottom. The main task of this system was to produce medals at all costs. This system pretty much exists in Ukraine till this day, and UFSF is a prominent representative of it.
While in most countries federations consist of skating clubs, in Ukraine it’s the opposite – UFSF decides where and who has access to the ice and is allowed to teach figure skating. Technically, you can form a "club" and try to rent the ice on your own, but you would not exist for the government or federation in any legal form. The only possible way for skaters and coaches to exist in Ukraine is to join this Soviet-style sports schools (named "ДЮСШ" – DUSSh – Children and Youth Sports Schools), which are fully governed by the Ministry of Sports* and the federation. If someone in the federation doesn't like a particular person, they won't grant them access to schools and the ice, which means they have no future in the Ukrainian figure skating at all.
This is how it has worked for decades and works to this day.
A coach and a mother
Behind every great skater is a great mom, so they say. That is truly the case for Ivan's mom – Alla Pavlova. Having the engineering degree and having spent years as a folk dance artist, she switched to being a full-time figure skating mom, raising three kids and converting into her son's manager, a physiotherapist, an off-ice coach, an accountant, a sponsor and a driver. And she’s been doing it for almost 17 years.
It was Alla Pavlova who’s spent every single practice of her son recording, watching and analyzing technique, who had mastered the sports video analysis software long before other coaches even heard of it, who’s watched zillions of figure skating videos every single day to help her son improve his programs, who did everything to find the best coaches available and to learn from them as much as possible. At some point, it became obvious that Ivan needed more qualified coaches than were available in Ukraine, and she managed to find coaching help abroad.
She found a way to get her son to train with prominent Russian coaches – Alina Pisareinko, and later, thanks to the help of Halyna Kukhar and ISU Development program, with Igor Pashkevich and Sergey Dudakov. Alla's efforts paid off when Ivan had mastered a solid technique of all triple jumps in 2011. When they were back in Kyiv – at the only ice rink available for the national team to practice on – the goal was "not to lose jumps". All triple jumps Ivan has learned with the coaches abroad thanks to the efforts of his mom.
The next cornerstone jump, a triple axel, Ivan has learned with his mother, though. While she technically wasn't a part of the Soviet sports system (i.e. didn't work as a full-time coach for a DUSSh), she has always been at the boards recording literally every attempt of the jump and meticulously analyzing it afterwards at home, watching tons of coaching videos and consulting with foreign coaches she’s befriended. Ivan landed his first 3A when his official coach was absent, and his mother, as always, standing at the boards of the ice rink with her iPad.
The same happened with the first quadruple jump, which Ivan has landed at a practice under the coaching of his mother.
All this time, head coaches and the federation not only failed to recognize this obvious success and the emergence of a new coaching talent but were openly hostile to her activity. They dismissed her request to work in DUSSh officially (“you’re not a coach!”). Motto from the Soviet era "a parent can't be a coach" must have clouded their ability to see clearly.
In 2017, Alla Pavlova has started her formal education process at the National University of Ukraine on Physical Education and Sport. She got a bachelor’s degree in figure skating coaching on June 19, 2019, two years after she had managed to teach her son a quad toe loop and a triple axel.
Despite the lack of support and awareness from the federation, Alla continued to be her son’s coach unofficially.
Accreditation for JWC2020
Let’s get back to the story. In his second season as a pair skater, Ivan, and his partner Kateryna competed at two Junior Grand Prix events (JGP Croatia Cup 2019 and JGP Baltic Cup 2019), placing 7th out of 15 at both, which is a good result for a freshly formed couple. At these ISU events, Alla Pavlova was officially a part of the Ukrainian team and was accredited as a coach.
Just to make sure everyone is on the same page – accreditation means that the person is officially recognized by the event organizer as such and has the official permit to access specific areas of the venue. Accreditation forms are sent by federations and are approved by organizers. Typically, ID badges are printed for the security purposes. Alla Pavlova already had decent experience of being a coach at the international events before:
The other coach was Arina Kuznetsova, who had started working with the couple a few months before the Junior Grand Prix events and was appointed by DUSsH. In order to use ice time given to DUSsH, skaters must have an “official coach”. As Alla has been denied to have such a position, they had to have a second coach, who worked officially in DUSsH. In the Soviet system it’s not skaters who chose the coach, it’s the system who assigns a coach to you.
Arina was virtually unknown among skaters and coaches in Kyiv and had no prior experience with pair skating. For the lack of choice and strong objections, skaters started collaborating with her and got along quickly. Alla Pavlova was still an unofficial coach for Ukrainian federation, was an official coach for ISU at the international events, and was responsible for most of the development of the technical skills of the couple.
This collaboration seemed to work well. Later into the season, they won their national title and demonstrated steady progress throughout the season. They didn't participate in the Junior Nationals due to Kateryna’s injury, so they focused on preparing for the Junior Worlds in Tallinn.
"You're not a coach"
In late January of 2020, rumours started circulating that Kateryna Dzytsiuk – Ivan Pavlov's participation in the ISU Junior World Championships was under threat. Arina Kuznetsova (the official coach), who was responsible for the communication with the federation on all the logistics of the upcoming Junior Worlds, somehow failed to ensure that Alla Pavlova was also on the official team. When the official forms have been submitted to ISU, Alla Pavlova was surprised to learn that she's not on the list.
Which means that on the couple’s Junior Worlds debut – and the most important start of the season – they were left without their main coach. This was especially tough for the 15-year-old Kateryna, who, at her first major international competition, needed a person and a coach she truly trusted and listened to. Arina, mostly being their coach for bureaucracy reasons, couldn’t provide enough technical and moral support skaters required. Keep in mind, we're talking about pairs here. The smallest error can result in terrible falls with life-threatening injuries.
Considering the fact that Alla Pavlova already had more experience as a coach at the international ISU events than Arina Kuznetsova and had a much better knowledge of the skaters there was no reason not to include Alla on the list. Obviously, the initial hope was that it's just a miscommunication and could be fixed by explaining the situation to the federation, but with or without the help of Arina Kuznetsova, they stood firm on the position that Alla Pavlova is not a coach and has no rights to go to the competition.
A typical dialogue with the federation went like this (in Russian):
To give you a glimpse into how serious that all was – in attempts to obtain the accreditation, Alla have searched for all possible options. She attempted to apply as a full-time coach to another DUSsH (to nullify the "you're not working at our DUSsH" argument) and was trying to find a chance to apply as a coach through other federations in other countries. Unfortunately, after a few exhausting weeks, those attempts proved to be futile. She had to go to the JWC as a chaperone (a role for parents eligible only for a bus shuttle permit, but not for the access to the practice ice rink).
During these events, communication between skaters, parents and the official coach, Arina, deteriorated. Arina was responsible for handling this in the first place. She not only did not help to solve the problem but took an explicitly ignorant position – “it’s not my problem” (sic). That obviously affected the trust. Arina, voluntarily or not, ensured she's the only pairs’ coach on the Ukrainian team, sacrificing the trust of her students and their parents.
What happened in Tallinn
Tallinn was lucky to hold the ISU Junior World Championships in early March, as the coronavirus pandemic was just about to get to its fullest, so this event has not been cancelled. Temperature check at the Tondiraba ice rink entrance was still a topic for jokes, as people had had no idea of what's going to happen to the world soon.
I was on the Organizing Committee and was spending most of my time at the ice rink. Naturally, I met our skaters and coaches, most of whom I've know for many years.
I was well aware of this situation with the accreditation denial and tried to find ways to resolve the problem. Being a part of the accreditation team, I know accreditation rules very well and explained that there is still time to submit a late accreditation request – the only thing needed was a signature of the Team Leader, Olga Petrova. You might expect a team leader to be a person of high moral and ethical grounds who'd say to their athletes: "We're here to help you and protect you". But in the Soviet-fashion Ukrainian Federation, the team leader doesn't even bother to say "hello" to their skaters.
Skaters begged Olga Petrova to get the permission for their coach to be accredited with a late request accreditation. But she snapped grumpily, "You already have a coach" and shut the door.
At that point, communication between skaters and Arina Kuznetsova was completely disrupted. They almost didn't talk, but the show had to go on. After one of the practices, both parents (Alla Pavlova and Alla Dzytsiuk) witnessed unusually nervous movements of the coach towards Kateryna. When they met the girl after practice, she was scared and crying. The emotional toll this situation had on skaters was huge, and it clearly affected the ability to practice to the point where they were scared to perform elements they had done well when their main coach, Alla, was at the rink. Alla did her best to keep skaters motivated, trained them during off-ice practice sessions, but that wasn’t enough to redo the damage incurred by UFSF actions.
Kateryna Dzytsiuk and Ivan Pavlov found themselves in the situation of extreme hostility from the federation – the very organization that should protect and care about them. UFSF has never been famous for supporting or uplifting their skaters at international competitions, but at that moment, they were actively destroying results of the whole season's hard work. Motivation and spirit of both skaters had fallen to its lowest, hours before their Short Program was about to start.
Both parents unanimously agreed to stop working with Arina the same second they saw the crying and scared kid after practice. Immediately, the whole thing was upgraded from "we want our skaters to perform well" to "it’s not safe for our kids' lives to skate in such a state". And they were right – pair skating is the most dangerous discipline in figure skating.
With a lot of tears shed and the extreme stress, they’ve somehow found the strength to go on the ice and skate – and performed the short reasonably well. Free Skating was also pretty good, and it's safe to say it was a feat – to skate under this amount of stress and hostility from their own federation.
Keep in mind, that by the raw Base Value value of their technical elements, the couple ranked second (!) in Free Skating in their first season together.
There is no publicly available information on who and how exactly made the decision to exclude Kateryna and Ivan and their parents from the federation. We know it was made during a Presidium meeting N 42. USFS doesn’t share minutes of their meetings or explain the nuances of their decision-making process.
The best we can do is to look at the Presidium structure of the federation.
The current president of the federation, Mykhailo Makarov, is continuing the long tradition of the UFSF to use the presidential position as a bargaining chip. Previously UFSF had Leonid Kravchuk (first Ukrainian president) as its honorary president, Ludmila Suprun (Ukrainian politician) and Evgeniy Larin (serial deputy assistant, as posipaky.info shows) as presidents. Mykhailo Makarov as well was a deputy assistant for Viktor Medvedchuk and the member of the “Opoblock”, and has a number of companies and organizations under his name. We don’t have evidence that he’s familiar with the Ukrainian figure skating landscape, people or history, so it’s safe to say that his participation in decision making at the UFSF is just a formality.
Next in this hierarchy are the vice president positions occupied for almost two decades by a famous skater and an Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, and also by Daniil Amirkhanov – head of Winter Sports department at Ministry of Sports, the husband of Maryna Amirkhanova, the head coach at the UFSF. Viktor Petrenko resides in the USA since the 90s and rarely visits Ukraine. His involvement in the decision-making process is unknown, but we have all reasons to believe this title is formal and is mostly needed for the prestige of the federation (having an Olympic champion on the board increases the credibility of any sports organization).
Third vice president title belongs to Hanna Turchynova, who is a dean at the National Dragomanov University. She is the wife of the ex-Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council Oleksandr Turchynov and is famous for her public homophobic statements and regular insults towards skaters and figure skating fans.
Among other members of the presidium are also Iryna Medvedeva, Maryna Amirkhanova, Olga Petrova and Dmytro Dmytrenko (another renowned Ukrainian champion turned to be USFS official). Iryna Medvedeva, holding head positions in the federation for more than a decade, also has a long history of dire conflicts with the skaters. Olga Petrova holds a top position at the federation as well, but it’s unknown if her position requires her to participate in such a meeting.
With Petrenko and Makarov virtually absent, Daniil Amirkhanov unlikely having a different opinion from his wife’s one, and Hanna Turchynova having little understanding of figure skating and figure skaters in Ukraine (and thus being easily influenced by others), decisions are left mostly to Maryna Amirkhanova and Iryna Medvedeva. The actual power hierarchy relevant to this Presidium meeting must have been closer to this:
It’s not a coincidence that Maryna Amirkhanova was a coach of Ivan Pavlov in 2012-2015. Her unique position as the wife of the head of the Winter Sports Committee and the head coach of UFSF of 20+ years gives her the luxury to ensure that almost all promising skaters able to compete at the international level have no choice but to skate only with her and no one else. Sometimes it’s just an obvious choice, as no other coaches are available (UFSF doesn’t develop institutions for raising coaching talents – also one of the responsibilities of the head coach), but according to many parents' and skaters’ reports, she is also keen to use the full range of manipulative tactics – from rumour spreading to blackmailing – to keep the stream of talented skaters to herself.
Such tactics rarely produce results, and there is no surprise that most skaters are leaving Maryna morally and physically traumatized. Based on multiple reports during the past two decades, it is clear that one thing Maryna Amirkhanova hates the most is when a talented skater leaves her voluntarily. Ivan Pavlov was one of those.
Iryna Medvedeva, Olga Petrova and Maryna Amirkhanova were in Tallinn and were in close communication with Arina Kuznetsova, but not with the skaters. These three representatives of the federation, together with Olga Petrova, were the very same people who made Kateryna and Ivan's experience at the Junior Worlds a nightmare.
Now, they were single-handedly deciding the fate of young talented skaters and their coach.
They have decided to destroy the skaters.
What the Soviet sport governance system can’t stand is disobedience. It's a sure-fire way to be destroyed by the system, no matter how talented an athlete is.
Based on the information above, we can conclude that the ban of our national champions, a talented and hard-working couple, wasn't a "severe disciplinary violation" – it was an act of vengeance from Maryna Amirkhanova, and most likely from Iryna Medvedeva and Olga Petrova as well.
They not only violated the UFSF’s own bylaws and mission, making it prohibitively hard for skaters and coaches to duly perform their work, but showed yet again that UFSF as an organization has failed – decision-making process is in hands of a tiny group of Soviet-minded people, and their decisions through decades are destroying figure skating in Ukraine.
This ban, of course, is not a unique case. Too many Ukrainian skaters have their own stories of conflicts with the federation. Many young coaches and skaters are fleeing Ukraine, as you can learn from our recent research. Many talented kids are dropping out of figure skating due to abusive Soviet coaching practices cherished by the federation. As people's resources are being destroyed, so is the Ukrainian figure skating economy. New ice rinks can’t emerge in the dead economy, so it’s not a surprise that they do not . UFSF has been destroying figure skating for decades, and the ban of our national champions for the sake of keeping the Soviet system in power was one of the wildest manifestations of the consistent damage for the Ukrainian figure skating we’ve seen in recent years.
Kateryna and Ivan are in great shape and feel confident that other countries will appreciate their talents and hard work. Obviously, COVID-19 pandemics affected the chances to find another federation to skate for, but that’s temporary. The couple hopes to continue to skate together, but they are also open to options where both of them will be skating with different partners and for different countries.
Here are some words from them in person (in Russian):
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