BEIJING — The doping case involving Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva has raised far more questions than answers.
Some skaters think it’s time to ask another question: Should a 15-year-old compete in the Olympics?
“You want these athletes to have the opportunity to make it a profession, not a year-long race,” said Mariah Bell, 25, the oldest U.S. national champion in nearly a century, after skated Tuesday.
“If we had a (minimum) age limit, I think it would help this idea of longevity and someone who was 25 wouldn’t be shocking at the Olympics.”
Valieva was cleared to skate Tuesday in the short program in part because her age gives her additional rights as a “protected person” in a doping case. She skated again on Thursday, but fell twice and ended up fourth, missing out on an Olympic medal.
The case comes as some skating officials push to raise the minimum age for its event from 15 to 17 in time for the 2026 Milan-Cortina Olympics. Bell has suggested a minimum of 18.
Reformers argue that a change would protect the well-being of child athletes and reduce the risk of injury from straining the body in increasingly spectacular jumps.
“I think (the Valieva case) will really move things forward and I hope she will also ask this question of other sports federations,” the president of the Norwegian Skating Federation told The Associated Press. , Mona Adolfsen, who supports change.
Valieva, she added, “is a child, so no matter what, we feel sorry for her.”
The issue is expected to be voted on at the International Skating Union convention in June. We don’t know if it will pass. Russia opposes it and the United States and Canada declined to say how they would vote.
The Valieva doping case has shone the spotlight on Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze, who transformed the sport with a “Quad Squad” performing risky but highly successful quadruple jumps. Its skaters often have meteoric careers, and it is not uncommon to retire at 18 or 19, sometimes with serious injuries. Almost all quads ever landed in women’s international competitions have been performed by under-18s.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach criticized people with Valieva, but did not mention anyone by name.
“When I saw afterwards how she was received by those closest to her, with such, what seemed to be enormous coldness, it was chilling to see that,” Bach said at a conference of press Friday. “Rather than comforting her, rather than trying to help her, you could feel this chilling atmosphere, this distance.”
Anna Shcherbakova won the gold medal and Alexandra Trusova the silver. Both are Russian and both are 17 years old. Trusova shouted “I hate this sport” after Valieva finished her routine on Thursday.
“If they increase the age, the motivation to create a skater who has longevity is higher,” said Swiss skater Alexia Paganini. “You are forced to think of a technique that can be maintained throughout your adult career.”
Others argue that younger skaters deserve to be in the limelight and shouldn’t have to wait for an Olympic chance. Raising the minimum could mean more cases like Trusova’s. She won the junior world title in 2018 at the age of 13, and her score would have also won the senior world title that year, but she was not eligible.
Figure skating has long struggled to balance artistic performance against athleticism in its oft-contested scoring system. Adolfsen argues that art is what connects best with the audience, and that comes with experience.
“Hopefully the development will be that it’s possible to learn quads also for women later on, but maybe overall it’s not the most important thing in figure skating,” said said Adolfsen. “They still remember (1984 and 1988 Olympic champion) Katarina Witt, and it’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 the 30 skaters in the women’s short program on Tuesday were also at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. The men’s event had twice as many participants as four years ago, and Michal Brezina of the Czech Republic competed in his fourth Olympic Games.
Adolfsen is also concerned about other sports and would ideally want the same minimum age for all Olympic athletes.
This could face opposition from the International Olympic Committee. He enthusiastically promoted younger athletes at the Tokyo Olympics last year, such as 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 age. Women’s gymnastics requires competitors to be 16 in the year of the Olympics – although some teams have rigged gymnasts’ ages. Olympic boxers must be at least 18 years old.
Bell believes a higher minimum age would give skaters more time to gain exposure to a wider audience and could restore figure skating to the high profile it enjoyed in the United States as 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 when they had been doing it for so many years that they had people who could support them,” Bell said. “I think it gave a great perspective for the sport because people could really follow their careers.”
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