Figure Skating Will Raise Age Limit to 17

Figure Skating Will Raise Age Limit to 17

Eric Radford, a three-time Olympic medalist from Canada, stepped up to the microphone at a meeting of figure skating’s global governing body on Tuesday, where delegates were preparing to vote to increase the minimum age limit for elite competitors in the sport to 17 over the next three years.

“The life of an athlete is short and intense,” said Radford, an athlete representative for the body, the International Skating Union. “The experience in this short period of their lives sets the stage for the rest of their lives, physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Radford acknowledged that any change could create short-term disruptions in the sport, which has increasingly featured young athletes executing spectacularly acrobatic moves.

But, he added, “Is a medal worth risking the health of a child or young athlete?”

Moments later, the delegates voted 100 to 16, with two abstentions, to pass the proposal, a decision that could significantly change the complexion of one of the most popular Olympic sports on the international stage.

The ISU afterward characterized the move as an effort to safeguard “the physical and mental health, and emotional well-being” of skaters. But the decision came only after the governing body faced worldwide criticism for a doping scandal involving a 15-year-old Russian champion that marred the women’s singles event at this year’s Beijing Olympics.

The change, which came at a meeting of the body in Phuket, Thailand, will be gradual: There will be no change for the 2022-23 competition season. But so-called senior skaters will need to be 16 years old in 2023-24, and 17 in the 2024-25 campaign.

The phase-in means the new, higher age limit will be in place in time for the next Winter Olympics, at Milan and Cortina, Italy, in 2026.

In Phuket on Tuesday, attendees in the conference room where the meeting was held erupted in applause when the vote count was displayed on the screen.

“This is a very important decision,” Jan Dijkema, the ISU president, said about the rule change as the clapping subsided. “I would say a very historic decision.”

The decision comes on the heels of a major doping scandal at the Winter Olympics in Beijing involving Kamila Valieva, a Russian skater who was just 15 at the time. Valieva, one of the top competitors in the world, was found to have tested positive for a banned substance in the run-up to Olympic competition.

Valieva, who had helped Russia win a gold medal in the team competition before her positive test was publicly disclosed, was allowed to go on to compete in the singles event, which she was favored to win. But amid the swirling scandal, she finished fourth with an uncharacteristically uninspired free skate.

The ordeal once again raised questions about the physical and mental safety of young skaters and whether enough was being done to protect them from the adults guiding their careers.

Speaking during the Games, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, called for sports federations to examine the conduct of so-called entourages after seeing the way Valieva’s coaches interacted with her after she stumbled through her performance.

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

The proposal had seemed to have broad support in the international figure skating community, where the issue of implementing some sort of minimum age had been discussed and debated for years.

The ISU’s athletes’ commission cited polls of its membership that showed a vast majority of its athletes wanted the minimum age limit raised.

Mirai Nagasu, who won a bronze medal with the US team in 2018, said she was mostly in favor of raising the minimum age limit in figure skating to better ensure that athletes are mature enough to “make their own decisions and have access to resources that can allow them to understand the full scope of their decisions.”

She noted, too, that athletes under 16 are classified as “protected persons” by the The World Anti-Doping Agency and are subjected to a different set of disciplinary procedures and punishments. In the case of Valieva, the Court of Arbitration of Sport considered her young age when determining that she could continue to compete at the Olympics while her case was unresolved, a decision that caused some uproar around the sport. Raising the minimum age could prevent similar situations from materializing in the future.

Still, there were some people in the sport opposed to any change, often citing the short-term disruptions it would impose on the careers of young athletes and the federations who support them in search of medals.

Tatiana Tarasova, a top figure skating coach in Russia, suggested in an interview with Match TV that the rule had been made specifically to target the Russian team.

“They see that in our country, there’s a huge amount of girls and boys, and they want to block it,” Tarasova said. “That’s why they started this whole rigmarole. They can block it only by removing from competition.”

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