One major change: Four months after the boisterous Valieva affair that had marred the Beijing Olympics, the International Skating Federation (ISU) on Tuesday raised the minimum age for figure skaters and skaters to participate in senior competitions to 17.
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The debate about the very young age of skaters, and especially figure skaters, resurfaced during the Olympics in the wake of Russia’s Kamila Valieva. A heavy 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.
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 breakdown of skaters whose high-level sports career is usually very short.
“It’s a historic decision,” greeted ISU president Jan Dijkema, while the authority’s director general, Fredi Schmid, called the vote a “moment of truth” before the opening of Congress.
“The ISU’s credibility will be tested,” he added. “The media and the public will be watching us very closely.”
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 athletes.
The reform had previously received the approval of the medical commission of the International Federation.
“It is their moral obligation and duty to give young skaters the opportunity and time to develop the skills they need to be successful at the senior level,” explained Dr. Jane Moran, who heads the medical commission. “They have the right to develop as people during their adolescence. They don’t need us to force them to compete.”
According to a survey conducted by the ISU Athlete Commission of 1,000 skaters and coaches, 86% of them were in favor of raising the minimum age.
Figure skating is undoubtedly a demanding sport, where young women string together hours of repetitive training, jumps and pirouettes, at an age when their bodies are still developing.
To be successful in triple or even quadruple jumps, a slender figure is also a definite advantage and after puberty, when the size increases, the jumps become more difficult to master. The skaters then find themselves on the sidelines, replaced by even younger ones.
“Everyone is against us”
During the Valieva affair, special attention was given to Russia, a flagship nation in the discipline that constantly produces new champions.
In the country, the reactions to the ISU vote were immediate. “If the era rises, it rises. We will win anyway,” former coach-turned-consultant Tatiana Tarassova told Russia’s TASS news agency.
“The decision is mainly directed against us,” exclaimed former discipline star Alexander Zhulin, an Olympic medalist in ice dance in 1994 and turned coach. “It’s obvious to everyone that at 15 or 16 our girls can’t be beat. The whole world is against us now, so this decision was not a surprise.”
For the 2014 Olympic champion Maxim Trankov, “in general, 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 agency. Novosti.
For his part, the German Norbert Schramm, former European champion, considered this decision insufficient and described it as “dust in the eyes”.
“It’s a first step, but I don’t think I can do anything positive for the sport. It just isn’t enough. 17-year-olds have no place in professional sports,” he told the SID sports agency.
He would like the minimum age to be raised to “at least 18 years, better 21 years”: “physical, mental and also doping. Young athletes are too dependent on their environment,” he said.
During the discussions, some representatives from 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 it’s kids first, athletes second,” said the Irish representative in Phuket.
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