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Young teens frozen out of Olympic figure skating

International Skating Union raises age limit for top-level competitions

Kamila Valieva in the women’s free skate program during the figure skating competition at the 2022 Winter Olympics Associated Press/Photo by Bernat Armangue, file

Young teens frozen out of Olympic figure skating

Tara Lipinski was 15 years old when she won the ladies’ singles figure skating gold medal at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. She understands better than most the pressures young female figure skaters face when training and competing at the sport’s highest level on the international stage.

Still, after the International Skating Union (ISU) announced Tuesday that it was raising the minimum age for Olympic eligibility from 15 to 17, Lipinski criticized the decision. The former gold medalist claims the change does little, if anything, to protect young skaters from abusive coaches who drive them to their mental and physical breaking points or pressure them to take performance-enhancing substances in pursuit of Olympic glory.

“Raising the age limit is a quick fix that will deny athletes a performance on the biggest stage and ultimately will not make a difference in stopping the abuse,” tweeted Lipinski, now 40 and a commentator for NBC Sports. “These young athletes will still be skating under this broken system, you just won’t see them until they are 17.”

The ISU announced via Twitter that its members had voted overwhelmingly (110-16) to raise the age limit “for the sake of protecting the physical and mental health, and the emotional well-being of Skaters.” The skating governing body’s draft proposal says the decision aims to prevent “burnout, disordered eating, and long-term consequences of injury” for athletes whose coaches push them ever harder to land ever more complicated, challenging jumps during their routines.

Russian national champion Kamila Valieva earlier this year became the first female figure skater to land a quadruple jump at the Olympics, an accomplishment that has since become shrouded in a drug-testing scandal. Valieva was 15 at the time.

By comparison, Japan’s Midori Ito was at least 18 when she became the first woman to land a triple axel in a major international competition in 1988. Since then, very few women have landed the notoriously difficult jump—which involves 3½ rotations while airborne for a second or less. Disgraced two-time Olympian Tonya Harding became the first American woman to do it three years later, at age 20. Even fewer under the age of 16 have done it.

Fifteen-year-olds will still be eligible to compete at skating’s top level during the 2022-23 season, with the minimum age rising to 16 in 2023-24 and 17 the following season. The next Winter Olympics is scheduled for 2026 in Italy.

The ISU made the change in the wake of the scandal involving Valieva. She was the overwhelming favorite to win individual gold at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics after helping Russia win the women’s team competition earlier in the Games. But the teen found herself suspended by her own country’s anti-doping association during the Olympics because officials found a banned substance in a drug test Valieva took in December. At the time of her suspension, Valieva was in the lead, having posted a high score of 82.16 in the women’s singles short program.

As her case made its way to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland, Valieva continued to train under intense scrutiny in Beijing. After the court allowed her to compete, Valieva skated an error-filled routine that dropped her out of medal contention and earned her a rink-side tongue-lashing from her coach, Eteri Tutberidze. Tutberidze has since come under fire for her harsh coaching methods.

Even before Valieva’s disastrous long program, however, cracks had begun to show: Valieva skated off the ice with tears in her eyes after her first-place performance in the Olympic short program.

Some observers say the ISU’s decision is not aimed at helping young skaters but at breaking Russia’s dominance in the sport. “I think it was done to more or less even out the competition so that our Russian female skaters couldn’t have the opportunity to win world championship, European, Olympic medals,” Russian gold-medal skater Dmitri Soloviev, who supports Tutberidze, told sports network Match TV.

Still, at least one American skater believes raising the age limit is the right call. Former figure skater Ashley Wagner, an Olympian and three-time U.S. national champion, tweeted that the move is “a step in the right direction!”

Ray Hacke

Ray is a sports correspondent for WORLD who has covered sports professionally for three decades. He is also a licensed attorney who lives in Keizer, Ore., with his wife Pauline and daughter Ava.



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