Figure skating age minimum raised ahead of next Olympics

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The International Skating Union approved gradually raising the figure skating age minimum from 15 years to 17 years for Olympic-level competition before the next Winter Games in 2026, which will impact the women’s singles event.

The previously detailed proposal, hatched before the Beijing Olympics to be voted on at this month’s congress, was “an urgently needed change to protect the physical, mental and emotional health of the athletes.”

Currently, skaters must reach age 15 by July 1 of the preceding year to be eligible for senior competition, including the Olympics.

The new rule calls for an increase after next season: turning 16 years old to be eligible for senior competition starting in 2023-24. Then upping it to 17 for the 2024-25 season and beyond, including the 2026 Olympics in Italy.

Russian Alina Zagitova won the 2018 Olympic title at age 15 and left competitive skating at age 17.

Russian Kamila Valieva, then 15, was the favorite going into this year’s Olympics and finished fourth after news surfaced of a positive drug test for a banned heart medication from a sample taken on Christmas.

Valieva, with the Russian Olympic Committee, won the team event before the positive test result was announced, leading to a postponement of that medal ceremony until her case is adjudicated. Anti-doping rules have a provision that athletes under the age of 16 may face lesser punishments for doping violations than those 16 and over, including a reprimand rather than a suspension.

Russian individual gold and silver medalists Anna Shcherbakova and Aleksandra Trusova were both 17.

Valieva and Trusova were both in tears after the free skate. IOC President Thomas Bach said afterward that he was “very, very disturbed” watching on TV. He described the way that Valieva’s entourage, including coach Eteri Tutberidze, received the skater after her performance as with “a tremendous coldness” and that it was “chilling” to see.

“After the Olympic Games, the circumstances you all know, we became quite under pressure from the media point of view, questioning the credibility of the ISU,” ISU director general Fredi Schmid said Tuesday at the ISU Congress in Thailand before the proposal was up for a vote. “We received enormous amount of questions. How come that you allowed such young skaters to compete under this emotional pressure? This should not be allowed. This was a major attack, let’s say. … The moment of truth, obviously, is today because the credibility of the ISU will also be scrutinized. I think this is a fact that the media and the public will watch us very closely, so don’t forget this.”

Increasing the age minimum to 17 decreases the risk of injury “if training loads are modified during times of rapid growth” and allows skaters to “expand on their social and emotional skills development,” according to the proposal.

The ISU medical commission cited concern of burnout, disordered eating and long-term injury.

The council cited an ISU athletes commission survey from a year ago in which 86.2 percent of respondents supported raising the age minimum.

The proposal passed with 100 voting for the change, 16 against and two abstentions.

In 2018, a similar proposal was taken off the congress agenda because it didn’t have sufficient support — 80 percent of the members attending congress to approve its place on the agenda.

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