Figure skating's minimum age rises to 17 before 2026 Olympics

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An impassioned plea from Canadian physician Dr. Jane Moran may have played a part in figure skating's decision to raise the eligible age limit for competition.

No 15-year-old skaters will be allowed to compete at the 2026 Olympics following the controversy surrounding Russian national champion Kamila Valieva at this year's Beijing Games after the International Skating Union voted 110-16 on Tuesday to raise the minimum age to 17.

Moran, the chair of the ISU's Medical Commission, sounded on the verge of tears as she told Tuesday's 58th ISU Congress that the decision was about the "health and safety of our skaters.

"It's about their longevity in their lives, not their skating career. It's about them as people. It's not about how many skaters you have in your country. It's not about the individual. It's about the skater themselves," Moran said. "And they skate, but they also have lives. And they have the right to develop themselves as people during their adolescent age, which is very difficult."

The change will be phased in before the next Winter Olympics in Milan-Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, with 15-year-olds allowed to compete in senior events next season. The minimum age will rise to 16 the following season, and be bumped to 17 in the 2024-25 season, a year out from the Games.

"Skate Canada is fully supportive of the age change," Skate Canada's CEO Debra Armstrong said from the Congress in Phuket, Thailand. "The voice of the athlete was heard loudly and clearly in this vote. The safeguarding of athletes health and well-being needs to be at the foundation of all that we do."

Moran is also a member of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Medical Commission’s Games Group. She's an associate clinical professor at the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine, and has worked at numerous Olympic Games and world championships as a physiotherapist, team physician and medical adviser.

"(Young skaters) need to be able to perform, they need to go through puberty, they need to be able to become independent. They need care during that time. They don't need us forcing them to compete," Moran told the Congress, to long applause. "They need to be able to develop both physiologically, their skills in skating, the passion that they love, but also psychologically, to be able to deal with the pressures of skating, but also the pressures of being an adolescent and being able to carry on in their careers and their lives.

"So please do not change this proposal."

The change seemed inevitable even before Valieva's heartbreaking meltdown on the ice at the Beijing Olympics. She was the favourite to take individual gold, after helping the Russians win the team title, before her positive doping test from December was belatedly revealed during the Olympics. She fell numerous times in an error-filled free program, and finished fourth. Her coach Eteri Tutberidze angrily scolded her when she stepped off the ice.

The teenager was allowed to train under intense scrutiny as a Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing was prepared that allowed her to compete pending the full investigation in Russia. That is still ongoing. Canada, which finished fourth in the team event, would move up to bronze should the Russians be disqualified.

Canadian Madeline Schizas, who was excellent in the team event in her Olympic debut, was asked in Beijing what could be done to make skating a more positive experience for young skaters.

"I felt sport has given me so much," said Schizas, who turned 19 during the Olympics. "I attribute sport to a lot of the confidence I have, to a lot of the really great experience I've had . . . I came through with a group of who knows how many other kids, and I'm the only one who's at the Olympics. For the vast majority of kids, you're not going to the Olympics, you're doing sports to get all of those other good things out of it, to learn life skills, to learn teamwork, and all of those great things you're going to need in life."

Schizas, who was 19th in the individual event in her Olympic debut and 12th at the world championships, credited her coaches Nancy Lemaire and Derek Schmidt for the positive environment at Milton Skating Club.

The ISU had drafted an age-limit proposal saying "burnout, disordered eating, and long-term consequences of injury'' were a risk to young skaters who are pushed to perform more quadruple jumps.

The decision was criticized in Russia, where skaters are currently banned by the ISU from international competitions because of the country's military invasion of Ukraine.

"I think it was done to more or less even out the competition, so that our Russian female skaters couldn't have the opportunity to win world championship, European, Olympic medals,'' Dmitri Soloviev, a team event gold medallist for Russia at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, told broadcaster Match TV.

"But in my opinion Eteri Tutberidze will find a way to get our athletes into ideal condition at the age of 17 or 18,'' Soloviev said, "so that they can show their best results at international competitions at that age in particular.''

— With files from The Associated Press.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 7, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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