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Figure skaters' minimum age for top competitions will rise to 17 after scandal

Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva attends a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow, on April 26 — Valieva's birthday.
Natalia Kolesnikova
AFP via Getty Images
Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva attends a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Russia's medal-winning athletes of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games and members of the country's Paralympic team at the Kremlin in Moscow, on April 26 — Valieva's birthday.

Updated June 7, 2022 at 10:32 AM ET

The International Skating Union is raising the minimum age for athletes in its most high-profile competitions from 15 to 17. The move comes months after Russia's Kamila Valieva was caught in a storm of controversy at the Beijing Winter Olympics when she was just 15 years old.

The age requirement will remain unchanged for the upcoming season, but it will rise to 16 in the following year and to 17 for the 2024-25 season, ahead of the 2026 Winter Olympics.

The new age minimum will apply to several disciplines, from speed skating and figure skating to ice dance and synchronized skating, after the ISU Congress approved the changes on Tuesday at its biennial meeting.

Under the new ISU requirements, skaters will have to reach the minimum age by July 1 before the upcoming event — the same cutoff date that's currently used. ISU delegates approved the proposed changes during their biennial meeting that's now underway at a resort in Phuket, Thailand.

In Beijing, Valieva was seen as a top contender for a medal. But she became embroiled in a massive doping controversy. She faced intense scrutiny and pressure, raising questions about her independence from her coaches and putting a new focus on the ISU's rules.

Athlete asks: Is a medal worth risking the health of a child?

The ISU's leadership council said the change will protect young athletes from injury from the physical rigors of elite sport. It also noted mental health concerns about coping with the pressures of the global spotlight.

During debate on the issue, the ISU's Athletes Commission presented the results of a survey of more than 960 athletes and coaches, saying 86% supported raising the age limit to 17 for senior competitions.

Eric Radford, a three-time Olympic medalist from Canada, spoke on the athletes' behalf.

"The life of an athlete is short and intense. Their experience in this short period of their lives sets the stage for the rest of their lives, physically, mentally and emotionally," he said.

Radford acknowledged the difficulties some countries might face in adapting to the age change. But, he added, "I hope that the long-term implications are the ones that are considered with more weight and importance.

"I pose the question: is a medal worth risking the health of a child or a young athlete?" Radford said.

Delegates approved the proposal by a 100-16 margin, with a handful of abstentions — a result that immediately drew whoops of celebration and applause.

The U.S. sought to delay the move to 17

Representing the U.S., former skater Troy Goldstein said he supports the new age proposal in general — but he joined a few other delegates in saying the ISU should wait until after the next Winter Olympics to raise the minimum age to 17.

Goldstein said it was "absolutely" the right call to raise the age to 16. But he said moving to 17 ahead of the 2026 Winter Games in Italy would affect skaters' development and retention, particularly in disciplines such as pairs skating.

Serbian delegate Slobodan Delic echoed Goldstein's sentiments. He also noted the U.S. has previously reaped rewards from the ISU's age policies, referring to Tara Lipinski winning a gold medal at age 15 at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.

An expert calls the change 'a good first step'

"The physical, emotional, and social pressures of elite sport can be too much for adults to cope with and even more difficult for children," sports doping expert April Henning, of the University of Stirling in Scotland, told NPR. The age change is "a good first step for a few reasons," she added.

Henning notes that in sports like figure skating or gymnastics, where athletes whose bodies aren't yet fully developed can have an edge, competitors may be treated more like small adults rather than vulnerable people.

"In terms of doping, this may offer some protection but really there needs to be greater independent oversight of how youth athletes are treated" by coaches and others as they develop, Henning said. "This is especially true for athletes who are not yet in the anti-doping system and may be more vulnerable to both coercion and risk of harms from use."

Calls for change grew louder after Valieva's ordeal

In Beijing, Valieva, who turned 16 in late April, was the favorite going into the women's individual figure skating event. She had turned in transcendent early performances — including becoming the first woman to land a quad jump in Olympic competition.

Then news emerged that Valieva had tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The case was further complicated by her status as a minor and her ability to consent in medical decisions.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport allowed Valieva to participate in the women's final. But the teenager's routine unraveled on the ice, and she collapsed into tears.

Valieva's case prompted the International Olympic Committee to take the extraordinary step of not holding a medal ceremony for the team figure skating competition in Beijing. Valieva's Russian squad finished in first place in the event, ahead of the U.S. team.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.