FIGURE SKATING – A major change: four months after the resounding Valieva affair which had splashed the Beijing Olympics, the International Skating Federation (ISU) raised this Tuesday, June 7 the minimum age for figure skaters to 17 years old to participate in senior competitions.
The debate on the very young age of skaters – and especially female skaters – resurfaced during the Olympic Games in the wake of the Russian Kamila Valieva. A big favorite for the Olympic title at just 15 years old, the young skater had cracked under the pressure after finding herself at the center of a doping scandal.
A “historic decision”
The reform, endorsed by delegates from 100 countries at the ISU Congress in Phuket, Thailand, will be implemented in two phases. The minimum age will first increase to 16 during the 2023-2024 season, then to 17 from 2024-2025.
Objective: to avoid the physical and mental breakage of skaters whose high-level sports career is often very short.
“It’s a historic decision”, greeted the president of the ISU Jan Dijkema, while the director general of the authority Fredi Schmid had described the vote as “moment of truth” before the opening of the Congress.
“The credibility of the UIS will be tested,” he added. “The media and the public will be watching us very closely.”
A duty to preserve the health of young athletes
The ISU stressed that raising the age limit had been on its agenda long before the Valieva case and recognized that it was its duty to safeguard the health of young sportswomen. The reform had previously received the approval of the medical commission of the International Federation.
“It is your moral obligation and duty to provide young skaters with the opportunity and time to develop the skills they need to succeed at senior level,” explained Dr Jane Moran, who leads the medical commission. “They have the right to develop as people during their teenage years. They don’t need us to force them to compete.”
According to a survey conducted by the ISU Athletes’ Commission of 1,000 skaters and coaches, 86% of them were in favor of raising the minimum age.
Figure skating is indeed a demanding sport, where young girls chain hours of repetitive training, jumps and pirouettes, at an age when their bodies are still developing.
To succeed in triple or even quadruple jumps, a slender silhouette is also a definite advantage and after puberty, when the size thickens, jumps become more difficult to master. The skaters then find themselves on the sidelines, replaced by others even younger.
“Everyone is against us now”
During the Valieva affair, Russia, a flagship nation in the discipline which constantly produces new champions, was particularly singled out. In the country, reactions to the ISU vote were immediate. “If the age is lifted, it is lifted. We will win anyway,” said former coach-turned-consultant Tatiana Tarassova to the Russian agency TASS.
“The decision is mainly directed against us”, lambasted for his part the ex-star of the discipline Alexander Zhulin, Olympic medalist in ice dancing in 1994 and become a coach. “It’s obvious to everyone that at 15-16 our girls can’t be beaten. Everyone is against us now, so this decision was not surprising”.
For the 2014 Olympic champion Maxim Trankov, “on the whole, the measure is neither the most correct nor the most effective”: “only Russian girls can do quadruple jumps anyway, at any age ”, he told the Ria Novosti agency.
For his part, the German Norbert Schramm, former European champion, considered this decision insufficient and described it as “poofwash”.
“It’s a first step, but I don’t think it can do anything positive for the sport. It’s just not enough. 17-year-olds have no place in professional sport,” he told sports agency SID.
He would like the minimum age to be raised to “at least 18 years old, better yet 21 years old”: “physically, mentally, and also for doping. Young athletes are far too dependent on their environment,” he said.
During the debates, some representatives of smaller countries also argued that these changes would have a negative impact on their talent pool.
But other small skating nations, such as Iceland and Ireland, have stressed that the priority must be the protection of athletes. “We have to remember that they are children first, athletes second,” said the Irish representative in Phuket.
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