Figure Skating Federation Proposes Raising Minimum Age to Compete

How young is the crucible of elite, international sports?

Officials in figure skating – A sport plagued by questions from the global stage about mental and physical safety of some of its best and youngest competitors – appeared to address a new issue with a new proposal to raise the minimum age from 15 to age. 17 in its major events, including the Winter Olympics.

The International Skating Union, the global governing body for the sport, will vote on the measure when it meets next month in Thailand.

The question of instituting minimum age limits in global sports – long debated in many other sports, like gymnastics – re-emerged in unsettling fashion earlier this year at the Beijing Olympics, where Russian skater Kamila Valieva, who was then 15, emerged at A doping scandal that rocked the entire Games.

The ISU Council, which has already been examining the issue well before the Olympics, has now proposed a gradual change to the rule: keeping the minimum age at 15 this year, nudging it to 16 before the start of the 2023-24 season. Bumping it to 17 for 2024-2025.

The timeline will ensure the new limit will be in place for the 2026 Olympics in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy.

“It is conceivable that allowing under-age athletes to compete may subject them to loads and risks that are considered inappropriate for their age, not only physically, but in terms of the psychological and social development of the child,” read a report from the ISU’s medical commission that was included in the organization’s proposal.

The proposal seems to have broad support around the sport, which, especially on the women’s side, has become increasingly dominated by teenage girls capable of performing dazzling, acrobatic jumps.

The ISU, in its proposal, cited a survey of athletes, coaches and others organized by the organization’s athletes’ commission this past winter, which supported 86.2 percent of the 966 respondents raising the minimum age.

“I absolutely believe there should be an age limit,” American skater Mariah Bell, who turned 26 last month, said while competing at the Beijing Games.

Bell suggested shifting the focus of competition away from young competitors – who are still physically, psychologically and emotionally, and often wash out of the sport soon after they peak – could elevate athletes who are more mature and more capable of cultivating longer careers.

She added, “I think there are more athletes that would be amazing, and I think having an age limit would aid in that happening.”

The ISU’s proposal includes a submission from the Norwegian skating federation that touched directly on this point: Between 1994 and 2018, five Olympic gold medalists in women’s skating were between the ages of 15 and 17; All of them retired either just before or right after the world championships the following season.

“To debut at the senior level at 15 years old doesn’t seem to motivate the skaters to have a long career in the sport,” the statement from Norway reads. “Our sport should facilitate rules and a competitive environment that supports the possibility of a long lasting career.”

At the Olympics in February, Valieva, who turned 16 last month, helped the Russian team win gold. Then news emerged that she had tested positive for a banned substance in the run-up to the Games, plunging the teenager into the middle of a raging global sports controversy.

An international court in Switzerland ruled that Valieva could continue to compete while her case was examined, but she faltered in the women’s singles competition, falling to fourth place being the gold medal favorite. Immediately afterward, international audiences watched as she was harshly criticized in front of the television cameras by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze.

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, suggested that the so-called entourages of teenage athletes – the coaches and other people accused of looking after their well-being – were falling short of their duties in many cases. He called for individual sports federations to examine the issue in greater depth.

“It was chilling to see this,” Bach said of the interactions between Valieva and Tutberidze. “Rather than giving her comfort, rather than trying to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”

The ISU’s medical report includes warnings about the physical effects of intense competition on bodies that are still developing, including hormonal problems and skeletal injuries.

It noted, too, that raising the age could address psychological risks stemming from participation in elite sports at a young age, including “burnout, disordered eating, and long-term consequences of injury.”

Nicole Schott, 25, who competed in Beijing for Germany, suggested during the Olympics that many young skaters quit before they could fully grasp the nature of their athletic careers.

“We see from the past that a lot of skaters quit at like 17, 18,” she said. “It’s actually sad because I think they can’t even realize what they did in this time – they’re too young.”

Alan Blinder contributed reporting.

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