Raising age limits won't be enough
By Sandra Loosemore
The biennial congress of the International Skating Union meets June 16-19 in Stockholm, Sweden, to consider rules changes for Olympic-eligible figure skating, and its agenda includes no less than 15 different proposals that deal with age limits for junior and senior competitors.
AMONG THE PROPOSALS TO be considered at the ISU Congress are:
Many observers wonder about the purpose of any age requirement for senior-level competition. After all, the number of 14- and 15-year-old medalists at the World Championships in recent years -- including Oksana Baiul, Michelle Kwan, Evgeny Plushenko and Lipinski -- shows that these young athletes are capable of skating at the same level as their elders. Many people would argue that it is unfair to exclude these skaters from the highest levels of the sport purely because of their age.
BUT THERE ARE ALSO LEGITIMATE concerns about premature mental and physical burnout among young skaters and whether it is appropriate to subject children to the considerable demands of training, competing, and touring at the elite level.
When skating becomes a full-time job, these young athletes are often excluded from attending school, experiencing a normal family life or socializing with peers their own age. In some cases, the child might be put in the uncomfortable position of being the primary source of income for an entire family.
Historically, the ISU has often been reactive, rather than proactive, in implementing rules changes. When the sport appears to be veering off in inappropriate directions, it is usually easier for the ISU to define what the sport isn't rather than what it should be.
One example of this occurred some years ago when the minimum age for senior competition was raised from 12 to 14. The change at least partly resulted from a late-1970s and early-1980s trend for pairs teams to be composed of a grown man skating with an undersized girl he could toss around like a rag doll. At the time it was easier for the ISU to ban children from the elite levels of the sport rather than change judging standards to devalue the "tricks" such mismatched teams were emphasizing.
Today's situation in ladies' skating is similar. While current judging standards reward skaters for landing triple jumps, many observers are deeply unhappy about the perceived trend for skating to become a jumping contest between little girls who have no future in the sport once their bodies begin to develop.
IS THE SOLUTION TO RESTRICT jumping instead of imposing age limits? No. Competitive figure skating is a sport, and as such it's idiotic to consider limiting its athletic potential. In fact, the real solution might be to change the judging standards so that skaters are rewarded for showing more athleticism and technical prowess -- in their ability to jump with height, power, and proper technique -- instead of just demonstrating the ability to rotate three times and land standing up.
Although being small and having an undeveloped figure gives younger skaters an advantage in their ability to rotate quickly in the air, the young skaters' lack of adult muscular development often translates into jumps that lack height, speed, and flow and in which faulty technique is used to compensate for lack of power.
Lipinski, for example, has been much criticized for "whipping" her double axel (jumping around instead of up), "flutzing" her triple lutz (taking off from an incorrect edge), and "cheating" her triple loop (doing part of the rotation on the ice instead of in the air). On the other hand, Nancy Kerrigan, who did not reach prominence as a skater until she was a mature woman in her 20s, displayed wonderfully strong and correct jumping technique when her career was at its peak.
In addition to powerful jumps, skaters with full-grown bodies are typically capable of stronger spins, more powerful stroking, and deeper edges than children. If the standards by which the sport are judged reward
In any case, trying to achieve this result simply by legislating age limits at the international junior and senior levels is probably doomed to failure because the problem really starts at the grass-roots level in the preliminary and juvenile divisions. It takes a minimum of perhaps five years of intensive training to advance from this level to the senior division; and if such intensive training is seen as harmful to skaters who are 13 or 14 years old, surely it is even more harmful to skaters who are only 8 or 9 years of age.
One occasionally even hears of children as young as 3 or 4 years old whose parents and coaches have them spending hours each day on the ice. These cases raise questions about whether such a training regimen goes beyond being inappropriate to being abusive. Yet neither the international nor national skating federations have taken any role in setting standards or guidelines for training programs for children at the developmental levels.
Sandra Loosemore is CBS SportsLine's figure skating writer.