by George S Rossano
(23 Feb. 2022) For the last several years there has been discussion within the ISU to raise the minimum age for the Women's event to 17 or even 18. Proponents of this have been motivated by discomfort with the fact that the Women's event has become an event for "little girls," and would prefer to have an event won by more mature young women. Until recently, such proposals have gained little traction. The Kamila Valieva doping case and her very public meltdown in the Women's free skate at the 2022 Winter Games, however, have given new life to thoughts of raising the age limit.
Discussions for raising the age limit now focus on protecting young skaters from abusive training environments, and better equiping skaters to handle the pressures of Olympic competition. With greater age, the hope is that skaters would have greater maturity to resist pressures from their "entourage" and federation to engage in unethical, dangerous or even illegal training methods, and to allow a more mature perspective in the face of disappointment.
It is a perfectly rational idea, but will it make a real difference? This is a question for experts in adolescent development, but my non-expert gut feeling is that the age limit would have to be raised substantially higher than the teen years to make a difference. I do not see a 17 or 18 year-old (or even a young adult) as any better equipped than a 15 to 16 year-old to resist the pressures of a forceful and determined coaching school, which has complete control over their career for years, or an aggressive domineering federation.
In this respect the career of Chinese skater Lu Chen is worth recalling.
Chen was a compliant and dutiful representative of Chinese skating her entire career, which extended into her 20s. Why? Because it was necessary to protect her parents and their village from government retribution. Then there is Katarina Witt, who was watched by the STASI during her career. Whatever age limit is set, skaters from domineering and aggressive federations are going to do whatever they are told to by government officials or their entourage if they want to stay in the sport.
The problem of abuse (and grooming to accept the abuse) of young skaters by their entourage and their federation is a problem with the adults and will only be solved by rules and policies targeted directly at the adults. Targeting the skaters is like trying to stop the sex trade by targeting the sex workers and not the pimps, traffickers and johns that control and benefit from the trade. Perhaps a few additional years of maturity will allow young skaters to better be able to deal with the stress of their situation, but that is about it.
A collateral consequence to increasing the age limit was raised by Christine Brennan in USA Today, that consequence being that the winning scores at Junior Worlds will likely end up exceeding those at Worlds and the Olympics. That is, the Olympic women's figure skating competition would no longer be a competition of the best of the best, as identified by highest scores, since the technically best skaters would be age ineligible for the Olympics with a 17 year limit or greater.
The technical jump skills of the women peak at about 15-16, due to the physical consequences of puberty. With a 17 year age limit, skating will end up with more women with triple Axels and above at Junior Worlds, than the few (if any) who manage to hold onto those skills at 17-18 at the Olympics. Do the ISU and IOC want that? Is the limited value of raising the age limit worth that, or would there also need to be changes to the scoring system to keep the 17-18 year olds women competitive to be considered best of the best? Here are some examples that would mitigate this problem by redefining somewhat what makes a singles skater the "best."
Call the missing rotation on jump takeoffs. The majority of the quads for the 15-16 age group are significantly pre-rotated and have missing rotation on the landings. Don't give them credit for full rotation, and pseudo quads will go away at the junior level. This would tend to equalize the number of skaters with fully rotated quads in junior and senior, under increased age limits.
Reduce the values of the quads even further, and set the scale of values so well executed triples are scored signinficantly higher than poorly executed quads, removing the motivation to attempt poor quality quads at the junior level. Stress qulaity over quantity of rotations.
Reduce the importance of jumps and increase the contribution to the scores from spins and sequences. There are multiple ways to do that.
Make the contribution to the score from artistic achievement a true 50% of the total score and not the 30%, at best, it currently is. There are several ways to do that too.
Judge the artistic achievement correctly and not give kneejerk 9s to skaters just because they execute the most difficult technical elements. There are several approaches to crack that nut as well.
The goal of such changes is to tweak what it means to be the best of the best, so it is no longer a 15-16 year old who is primarily a jumper, but a somewhat older (somewhat more mature) skater who is truly proficient and balanced in all technical skills, and in artistic skills as well.
Naturally, one must also ask how such rules changes for singles would affect the men. It is likely not much.
The men start to pick up their quads at 15-16, and as they go through puberty they generally get stronger but do not lose their jumps. A change in the balance for rewarding all skills would mean that a skater like Nathan Chen would still win, just not by 20-30 points anymore, and the best of the best would still be competing in seniors.
Raising age limits to 17 or 18 in all likelihood will:
Give skaters a few years additional maturity to learn how to deal with the stress and potential disappointments that go with Olympic competition.
Somewhat decrease the public image of the women's event as an event of "little girls."
Make skaters no better able to resist negative influences and pressures from an abusive coaching entourage or federation.
Have no impact on the behavior of an abusive coaching entourage or federation.
Result in collateral damage by making Olympic and World competition to less likely be a competition of the best of the best. Altering the rules of singles skating might mitigate this damage somewhat.
The Beijing Games brought needed attention to the problem of abusive coaching entourages and federations. Action needs to be take by the ISU and IOC, but raising age limits for singles events, or the women specifically, is unlikely to solve the problem.