How young is too young in the crucible of elite, international sports?
Officials in figure skating – a sport plagued on the global stage by questions about the mental and physical safety of some of its best and youngest competitors – appear set to address the issue head-on with a new proposal to raise the minimum age from 15 to 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 early this year at the Beijing Olympics, where the Russian skater Kamila Valieva, who was then 15, emerged at the center of a doping scandal that rocked the entire Games.
The ISU council, which had 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, before bumping it to 17 for 2024-2025.
The timeline would ensure the new limit would 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 thought to be 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, particularly on the women’s side, has increasingly become dominated by teenage girls capable of performing dazzling, acrobatic jumps.
The ISU, in its proposal, cited a survey of athletes, coaches and others in the sport conducted by the organization’s athletes’ commission this past winter in which 86.2 percent of the 966 respondents supported 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 that shifting the focus of competition away from young competitors – who are still developing 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 that to have more athletes like that would be amazing, and I think having an age limit would help in that happening.”
The ISU’s proposal included 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 does not seem to motivate the skaters to have a long career in the sport,” the statement from Norway read. “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 the 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 despite being the gold medal favorite. Immediately afterward, international audiences watched as she was harshly criticized in front of television cameras by her coach, Eteri Tutberidze.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, suggested that the so-called entourages of teenage athletes – the coaches and other people charged with 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 more 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 included warnings about the physical effects of intense competition on bodies that were 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 now because I think they can’t even realize what they did at this time – they’re too young.”
Alan Blinder contributed reporting.