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Figure skating minimum age raised to 17

June 7, 2022

There will be no figure skaters under the age of 17 at the 2026 Winter Olympics. It follows the controversy surround 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva in Beijing.

Russian Olympic figure skater Kamila Valieva
The new limit follows the controvery of Russian 15-year-old Kamila Valieva's performance in BeijingImage: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

The minimum age for figure skaters competing in high-level international competitions will be raised following a vote by the sport's governing body on Tuesday.

Figure skaters will ultimately have to be at least 17 years old to compete in international events. The limit will be phased in, allowing 16-year-old skaters to compete in the 2023-24 season.

Before this decision, skaters as young as 15 were allowed to compete.

The decision was passed 110-16 in a vote by the International Skating Union in Phuket, Thailand.

The issue came to a head following controversy surround the participation of Russian national champion, Kamila Valieva, at the Beijing Olympic Games earlier this year.

Valieva — who was allowed to compete despite failing a drug test — faced enormous pressure and scrutiny over her participation. She was a favorite to win the individual event after helping secure gold in the group event, but stumbled several times during her routine. She was then openly criticized by her coach Eteri Tutberidze in a tearful encounter.

However the issue of ever-younger competitors and medalists has long accompanied a sport where the additional agility of youth has become fundamentally important. All six individual male and female medalists in Beijing were 24 or younger, three of them were teenagers. 

"This is a very important decision," ISU president Jan Dijkema said. "I would say a very historic decision."

Young skaters face health risks

The ISU proposed the new limit, citing risks of "burnout, disordered eating, and long-term consequences of injury" for young skaters.

The governing body said it had "a duty of care to protect the physical and psychological health and safety of all athletes including elite adolescent athlete[s]."

A medical report written for the ISU said the new limit would allow young skaters to reach skeletal maturity before competing, and that young athletes faced a puberty delay of two years on average.

"They have the right to develop themselves as people during their adolescent age... They don't need us to be forcing them to compete," said Dr Jane Moran from the body's medical commission.

Russian commentators said the decision was aimed at hurting Russia's medal chances.

Former Russian skating star Alexander Zhulin, now a coach, told TASS news agency: "The decision is mainly directed against us."

"It is obvious to everyone that at 15-16 years old our girls cannot be beaten. Everyone is against us now so this decision was not surprising."

Former coach turned media personality Tatiana Tarassova told TASS: "We will win anyway."

Smaller nations said it would reduce their chances of winning, but other smaller skating nations including Iceland and Ireland defended the decision, saying the focus should be on protecting youngsters.

"We have to remember they are children first and athletes second," Ireland's representative in Phuket said.

The next Winter Olympics is in Milan-Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy in 2026.

aw/msh (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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