BANGKOK (AFP) – Ice skating’s governing body voted yesterday to raise the minimum age for senior competition to 17, months after an Olympics drug scandal involving teenage Russian Kamila Valieva.
The decision by the International Skating Union (ISU) congress in Phuket, Thailand lifts the age limit from 15 and will be phased in gradually, reaching age 17 in the 2024/25 season.
“It’s a very historic decision,” ISU President Jan Dijkema said, after 100 countries voted to support the measure, with only 16 opposed.
Figure skater Valieva, then 15, was allowed to compete at February’s Beijing Winter Olympics despite failing a drugs test beforehand, but broke down after falling multiple times during her final performance.
With the global spotlight on her and favourite for gold, she finished outside the medals.
Questions swirled about the influence of her entourage following a tense and tearful post-routine encounter with her coach.
The ISU said that raising the age limit was on its agenda well before the Valieva case and acknowledged it had a duty of care to elite adolescent athletes.
Ahead of the vote, director general Fredi Schmid said the ISU had faced media pressure and a “major attack” in the wake of the Olympics and reminded delegates the global body’s reputation was at stake.
“The moment of truth is obviously today because the credibility of the ISU will also be scrutinised. The media and the public will watch us very closely so don’t forget this,” he warned.
Top names in Russian figure skating played down the decision – which will be in place for the Winter Olympics in 2026 – with former coach turned media personality Tatiana Tarassova telling the TASS agency: “We will win anyway.”
Former skating star Alexander Zhulin, now a coach, told TASS: “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.”
Russian teenagers Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova won gold and silver in Beijing. Valieva was fourth.
The ISU’s medical advice backed raising the minimum age to 17 arguing it would benefit young skaters physically and mentally, and help extend their careers.
“I feel as administrators of the sport of skating it is your moral obligation and duty to provide these young skaters with the opportunity and time to develop the skills they require in order to be successful at the senior level,” Dr Jane Moran from the body’s medical commission said.
“They have the right to develop themselves as people during their adolescent age. They don’t need us to be forcing them to compete.”
A medical report said the change would allow junior athletes time to reach skeletal maturity.
It also warned that some elite adolescent athletes could experience a puberty delay for an average of two years as a result of the physical demands of training.
It noted some were at greater risk of developing eating disorders.
The athletes’ commission surveyed close to 1,000 athletes and coaches, and 86 per cent were in favour of lifting the age limit.
Some representatives from smaller countries argued the changes would have a negative impact on their talent pool of skaters and ability to send athletes to elite competitions. But other smaller skating nations such as Iceland and Ireland argued the focus should be on protecting youngsters.
“We have to remember they are children first and athletes second,” Ireland’s representative in Phuket said.
An amendment to raise the minimum age to 16 and then wait until after the 2026 Olympics in Milan-Cortina to revisit the issue was rejected.