Would raising the minimum age in figure skating prevent another Kamila Valieva situation in the future?
It would not directly deal with the issue of doping that is at the center of this highly controversial case, which has utterly overshadowed the 2022 Winter Olympic figure skating competition for the week since it became public.
But it would address part of the multi-layered problem that may have contributed to Valieva, 15, having a banned drug, trimetazidine, appear in a doping control sample she gave Dec. 25.
Olympic champion Nathan Chen’s coach, Rafael Arutunian, has advocated raising the age minimum for several seasons. He thinks the Valieva case will put more pressure on the International Skating Union to do it.
“If you are skating in an adult competition, you should be an adult,” Arutunian told me this week via telephone.
NBC Olympics has confirmed a Russian TV report that the ISU governing council will put forward a proposal to raise the minimum age for Olympic-level (senior) international competition on the agenda of the ISU congress in June. The minimum would go from 15 to 17, cover only figure skating and be phased in.
That would remove the possible cover of the World Anti-Doping Agency code’s “protected persons” language, which applies to athletes under 16. The Court of Arbitration for Sport cited that language as the first item in its ruling not to impose a provisional suspension on Valieva, allowing her to compete in the women’s singles event, which began with her winning the short program Tuesday.
Under the WADA Code, “protected persons” can be sanctioned with a reprimand rather than a suspension even if it is finally determined they did commit a doping violation. And the “protected person” bears no burden to establish how the banned substance got in his or her body.
That certainly lessens the potential risk from being caught using PEDs, and it may encourage the athlete or the athlete’s coaching team to game the system.
In the ISU council proposal, the minimum would be 16 for the 2023-24 season and 17 for the 2024-25 season and beyond. The one-season delay in implementation is to avoid penalizing skaters already in the senior competitive system who would not meet the minimum of 17 in 2022-23.
The Norwegian Skating Association is making a slightly different proposal that would apply to all ISU sports: figure, short track and speed skating.
For figure skating, the Norway proposal minimum would be 17 for singles and 16 for ice dance and pairs. It would take effect all at once in 2023-24.
There should, at least, be some debate at the congress on the issue this time, unlike 2018, when ISU procedure rules made it easy to kill a similar proposal before it reached the agenda.
“With one proposal coming from the council, I am a little more optimistic but assume it will still get some resistance,” former U.S. Figure Skating president Samuel Auxier said in a text message. “Russia will assemble a voting bloc to defeat it as they have done in the past because age is so important to their strategy.”
A little background:
*Figure skating’s current scoring system gives great rewards to skaters who can do the most difficult jumps, the quads (four revolutions in the air). Unless the skater falls on the landing, even imperfect execution will earn a skater more points than a triple jump if all four revolutions are completed.
*In the case of women, there is general agreement that prepubescent morphology, with light, short, straight-line shapes, makes it easier to have the optimal strength/size ratio to do quads.
*Russia’s most successful women’s coach, Eteri Tutberidze, has taken maximum advantage of the points system and the way younger skaters are best suited to exploit it.
Tutberidze-coached skaters account for nearly all the several dozen quads women have landed cleanly in international competition since Aleksandra Trusova, then 13, hit the first at the 2018 World Junior Championships. Tutberidze is the coach of all three Russian Olympic Committee women’s singles skaters at the 2022 Olympics, including Trusova and 2021 world champion Anna Shcherbakova.
Tutberidze has not been reluctant to talk about how demanding her coaching methods are. Whether they also could involve banned drugs is a question a Russian Anti-Doping Agency investigation is supposed to consider as part of adjudicating whether Valieva will eventually be sanctioned for the positive test.
In a Monday statement about the decision that allowed Valieva to keep competing, WADA said, “In addition, WADA’s independent Intelligence and Investigations Department will look into it.”
Tuesday, International Olympic Committee member Denis Oswald confirmed Russian media reports that Valieva’s defense team contended to the CAS panel the positive test for the drug trimetazidine might have been caused by contamination from exposure to a product her grandfather was taking.
RUSADA said the Swedish lab that tested Valieva’s sample did not send them a report of the test result until Feb. 8, a day after Valieva was able to help ROC win the Olympic team event.
The usual Byzantine procedures in anti-doping matters followed. RUSADA issued Valieva a provisional suspension; she successfully appealed it; the IOC brought a case to reinstate the suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport; a CAS panel ruled against the IOC.
Scientists have expressed differences of opinion over whether there are performance-enhancing qualities of trimetazidine. It is designed to improve blood and oxygen flow to the heart in patients with coronary artery disease.
The increase in oxygen-carrying capacity could also improve an athlete’s endurance. That would help the athlete handle long hours of intense training.
Over the past decade, the turnover rate of top Russian women, especially those coached by Tutberidze’s team, has been alarmingly high. Several have left the sport in their mid-to-late teens because of injuries.
The Norwegian proposal does not mention injuries, although many in the sport worry about the long-term effects of the accelerated development necessary to reach the elite in women’s singles. That proposal does note, “Young skaters are pushed to perform difficult technical elements to be able to compete against the more experienced and older skaters with better program component skills.”
“Our main reason is to prevent the athletes from retiring after only a few years at senior level and to make it possible for more skaters to continue skating longer,” Mona Adolfsen, president of the Norwegian federation, said in an email.
“There is an immense pressure put on the skaters at the top senior level. To debut at the senior level at 15 years old does not seem to motivate the skaters to have a long career in the sport. Our sport need athletes that last longer, and our sport should facilitate rules and a competition environment that supports the possibility of a long-lasting career.”
Only two of the seven women’s Olympic champions from 1994 through 2018 have been over 17. Two were 15, two 16 and one 17.
Two of those teenagers, Oksana Baiul of Ukraine (1994) and Tara Lipinski of the United States (1998), did not compete again after winning the Olympics; another, American Sarah Hughes (2002), competed just one more year.
Only the 17-year-old 2014 champion, Adelina Sotnikova, and the 15-year-old 2018 champion Alina Zagitova, both Russians, lasted two more seasons.
Sotnikova missed the first of those seasons with an injury. Zagitova, coached by Tutberidze, stopped midway through the second season. Then 17, Zagitova insisted at the time she was only taking a break, but that turned out to be the end of her competitive career.
Zagitova knew all too well how hard it would be to compete against the upcoming group of Russian phenoms. Nearly all of them also were training with Tutberidze.
“It’s not a new phenomenon that we have young skaters at the top – but not this kind of massive, massive revolution with the quads by these young skaters,” Finnish Olympian Kiira Korpi told me for a 2019 NBC OlympicTalk story headlined: “Alina Zagitova took a break; what does that say about figure skating?”
Even raising the age would not necessarily stop the teaching of quads to young girls. But there would be less incentive in risking injury to learn them as tweens and young teens if careers at the senior level did not begin until 17, when physical changes likely would make it much harder to retain the ability to do those jumps.
Mariah Bell, at 25 the oldest women’s singles skater on the U.S. Olympic team since 1928, said Tuesday she favors a minimum of 18.
“You want these athletes to have the opportunity to have it (skating) be a profession, not a one-year run,” Bell said. “A (different) limit would promote longevity, and someone being 25 in an Olympics wouldn’t be shocking.”
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.