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BEIJING — Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva finished her short program routine this week and promptly burst into tears. After skating off the ice, the emotional Valieva grabbed a stuffed animal her coach handed her and waited to be judged. She ended the program in first place.
For days leading up to her event, the 15-year-old skater faced intense scrutiny after a pre-Games doping violation came to light. The gold-medal contender is still allowed to compete at the women’s figure skating final on Thursday despite this violation.
Valieva’s continued participation in the Games has been met with harsh criticism — but even some of these critics say that ultimately the teen doesn’t bear all of the blame here. At such a young age, Valieva is being guided by a team of adults — officials and coaches that make decisions for her.
Former Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon recently criticized Valieva’s team. Rippon coaches U.S. figure skater Mariah Bell.
“Valieva is 15. I doubt very much she knowingly doped. She’s a minor. The adults completely failed her,” he told NPR.
The Valieva scandal has led some in the figure skating community, including current skaters and coaches, to renew calls for higher age minimums for Olympic competition.
Advocates of the idea say older skaters would be more able to advocate for themselves, have more maturity to deal with intense pressure, and would have a better sense of when something wasn’t right.
“This I completely agree with,” Bell said Tuesday, after competing in the figure skating short program.
In general, the International Olympic Committee does not set age limits for participating in the Olympics — that’s up to the governing body of each sport.
The International Skating Union has made 15 years old the minimum competition age in figure skating. The prospect of bumping the age higher has been debated at the ISU in recent years. Recent reports indicate another proposal will be brought before the ISU later this year.
Jackie Wong, a figure skating analyst for the website Rocker Skating, said there are several issues to consider before making sweeping changes. He said that in some ways, raising the age minimum could be a good thing for the longevity of the sport and its athletes.
On the other hand, he said, if an athlete is at their best at 15, is it fair to penalize them?
It’s worth nothing that this debate is focused on female skaters. Most male skaters don’t peak as teens like young women do — in part because their bodies mature more slowly, Wong said.
Young skaters speak of challenges in the sport
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The world of Olympic-level figure skating is extraordinarily tough on young women, top U.S. skaters said.
“It’s hard enough for me, and I’m 25. I don’t know what it would be like if I was 10 years younger,” Bell said.
She thinks athletes only 18 and older should perform at this level. Notably, her teammate, U.S. figure skater Alysa Liu, is just 16.
Female athletes also deal with body-shaming in a way that male competitors don’t. That can have a disastrous effect on self esteem and mental health.
“It is a really big issue in skating. I dealt with a lot of negativity two years ago,” Liu told reporters. She was just 14 then.
The U.S. has also seen major success with young skaters in recent Games. Liu is one. Another is Tara Lipinski, who won an Olympic gold medal at just 15, and Sarah Hughes, who also won gold at 16.
In 2018, snowboarder Chloe Kim, then just 17, shot to stardom after the Pyeongchang Olympics. In the wake of winning her first gold medal, she said she struggled with the pressure and suffered from depression. Kim, now 22, said getting older has helped her better navigate the attention and criticism.
Building a sport with athletic longevity
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At just 25, Bell is considered an elder of the sport.
“I think [raising the age minimum for competition] would promote that idea of longevity and somebody being 25 wouldn’t be shocking,” she said.
Natasha McKay, a 27-year-old skater from the U.K., is one of the oldest competitors in the field of Olympic women’s figure skaters.
“I didn’t get the jumps until I was much older,” she told reporters this week. “I was the odd one out. In a way I feel it is helping me, as my legs are still going and I have not stopped competing yet, even though I am 27 years old.”
On the discussion about raising the age, she said: “I don’t see anything wrong with raising the age, as bodies will be more developed and there will be less injury, but whatever decision they make, they will make it.”
It’s hard to standardize age restrictions in skating, according to Wong.
“Every body grows up differently,” he said. Increasing the competition age for women would likely help the sport in the long run.
Young, teen skaters often retire early due to injury or exhaustion.
Wong said, “I would love to see more skaters be able to have a more sustainable, long term career rather than people peaking at a certain age and not getting to that point again.”
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