The International Skating Union, the international governing body for figure skating, announced on Tuesday that they will gradually raise the minimum age for Olympic-level competition from 15 to 17, meaning that no figure skaters younger than 17 will be able to compete in the 2026 Milano Cortino Games.
The proposal cited numerous reports from the ISU Medical Commission regarding the dangers of young athletes competing in sports at such a high level. They are at greater risk of physical injuries due to their still-developing bodies, but also "psychological injuries" which could have long-term effects on their mental, cognitive, and emotional health.
Currently, a figure skater has to turn 15 by July 1 of the previous year to be eligible to compete in senior and Olympic level events. That will stay in effect until next year, when the age increase will start. For the 2023-2024 season, figure skaters will have to turn 16 by July 1 of the previous year to be eligible for senior and Olympic level events. Then it will increase to 17 for the 2024-2025 season, which is where it will remain.
"This is a very important decision," ISU president Jan Dijkema said via CNN. "I would say a very historic decision."
Kamila Valieva's drug test underlined need for updated rules
While raising the minimum age had been proposed prior to the Beijing Games in February, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva's positive doping test possibly had an effect on the approval.
Valieva, the gold medal favorite going into the Olympics, was just 15 years old in February when a doping test she took at Christmas came back positive for a banned heart medication. Anti-doping rules allow for athletes under 16 to be treated with leniency, but Valieva had already helped the Russian team win gold in the team skating event, putting those results — and her status for the individual event — in question.
The medal ceremony for the team skate was delayed, and after her provisional suspension was overturned on appeal, Valieva was allowed to compete in the individual event. However, her free skate was a mess, and she finished out of medal position. Valieva was seen crying during the skate, and when she came off the ice, the reaction she — a 15-year-old world-class athlete — got from her entourage was less than warm. Via NBC Sports:
IOC President Thomas Bach said afterward that he was “very, very disturbed” watching on TV. He described the way that Valieva’s entourage, including coach Eteri Tutberidze, received the skater after her performance as with “a tremendous coldness” and that it was “chilling” to see.
While Valieva's positive test and possible punishment was one major issue, the psychological strain she appeared to be under, paired with the response of her coach and entourage, launched a different conversation about whether skaters that young should be allowed to compete at the Olympic level. Additionally, the World Anti-Doping Agency is investigating Valieva's entourage, the adults who were supposed to keep her safe, healthy and in compliance with all rules
Other skaters support raising the minimum age
The Valieva saga rocked the women's figure skating enclave in Beijing for the Olympics. While some expressed sympathy for Valieva and her situation — the adults in her entourage were supposed to protect her — many supported an eventual increase in the minimum competition age.
Alysa Liu, who at 16 was Team USA's top women's figure skater competing in Beijing, told Yahoo Sports' Henry Bushnell in February that she "probably wouldn't mind" an age limit, even though it would affect her.
“I'd just be like, ‘OK, I just have to wait a little bit longer,’” Liu said. “Which is fine. I've trained so long, might as well just do a little bit longer.”
Others were a bit more direct.
“I mean, anything older than 15, I'll be happy with at this point,” Switzerland’s Alexia Paganini, 20, told Yahoo Sports.
Women's figure skating has been full of teenagers for years, since it's easier to do jumps and other skills when athletes are younger and smaller. Twenty-five-year-old U.S. skater Mariah Bell pointed out that a higher minimum age could allow the sport to grow and become a career choice.
“You want these athletes to have an opportunity to have this be a profession,” Bell said to Yahoo Sports. “Not like a one-year run at it.”