Valieva case boosts drive to raise age limit at Olympics
Beijing — The doping case involving Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva has led to many more questions than answers.
Some skaters think it's time to ask another: Should a 15-year-old be in the Olympics at all?
“You want these athletes to have an opportunity to have this be a profession, not a one-year run at it,” Mariah Bell, at 25 the oldest U.S. national champion in nearly a century, said after skating Tuesday.
“If we had an age (minimum) limit, I think it would promote that idea of longevity and somebody being 25 wouldn’t be shocking at an Olympics.”
Valieva was allowed to skate Tuesday in the short program partly because her age gives her extra rights as a “protected person” in a doping case. It comes as some skating officials push to raise the minimum age for her event from 15 to 17 in time for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Olympics. Bell suggested a minimum of 18.
Reformers argue a change would protect the wellbeing of child athletes and reduce the risk of injuries from straining the body into ever-more spectacular jumps.
“I think that (the Valieva case) really will push this forward and hopefully it will also put this question forward to other sports federations,” Norwegian Skating Federation president Mona Adolfsen, who supports the change, told The Associated Press.
Valieva, she added, "is a child, so whatever happened, we feel sorry for her.”
The issue is expected to go to a vote at the International Skating Union congress in June. It's unclear if it will pass. Russia is opposed and the United States and Canada declined to say how they'll vote.
The Valieva doping case has put the spotlight on Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze, who transformed the sport with a “Quad Squad” performing risky but high-scoring quadruple jumps. Her skaters often have blink-and-you'll-miss-it careers, and it's not unusual to retire at 18 or 19, sometimes with severe injuries. Almost all quads ever landed in women's international competitions were performed by under-18s.
“If they raise the age, the motivation to create a skater who has longevity is higher," Swiss skater Alexia Paganini said. “You are forced to think about a technique that can be maintained throughout your entire adult career.”
Others argue younger skaters deserve the limelight and shouldn't have to wait for an Olympic chance. Raising the minimum could mean more cases like that of Alexandra Trusova, now one of Valieva's teammates in Beijing. Trusova won the world junior title in 2018 at the age of 13, and her score would also have won the senior world title that year, but she wasn't eligible.
Figure skating has long struggled to balance artistic performances against athleticism in its often-disputed scoring system. Adolfsen argues the artistry is what connects best with the public, and that comes with experience.
“I hope that the development will be that it’s possible to learn the quads also for the women later, but maybe in the big picture that’s not the most important thing in figure skating,” Adolfsen said. “They remember (1984 and 1988 Olympic champion) Katarina Witt still, and that’s not because of the difficult jumps. It was because of the performance.”
Age affects male and female skaters differently. Men tend to develop later and have longer careers, but still face injury risks. Only six of 30 skaters in the women’s short program Tuesday were also at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. The men's event had twice as many returnees from four years ago, and Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic skated at his fourth Olympics.
Adolfsen is concerned about other sports, too, and would ideally like the same minimum age for all Olympic athletes.
That might face opposition from the International Olympic Committee. It eagerly promoted the youngest athletes at last year's Tokyo Olympics, like 13-year-old skateboarding medalist Sky Brown, who competed a year after suffering a fractured skull in a training accident. Different sports set their own minimum ages. Women's gymnastics requires competitors to turn 16 in the year the Olympics are held — though some teams have faked gymnasts' ages. Olympic boxers must be at least 18.
Bell believes a higher minimum age would allow skaters more time to become known to a wider audience and could give figure skating back the high public profile it enjoyed in the United States when she was a child.
“If you look at (2006 Olympic silver medalist) Sasha Cohen and (five-time world champion) Michelle Kwan, they were competing at a time where they did it for so many years they had people that can back them," Bell said. "I think it gave a great outlook for the sport because people could really follow their careers.”