Ice Network

Should the minimum age for seniors be raised?

Movement afoot to maintain level playing field, protect growing athletes
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Olympic champion Alina Zagitova, who will not turn 16 until May 18, 2018, is the latest in a long line of young Russian women who have dominated the sport in recent years. -Getty Images

Is it time to raise the age minimum for singles figure skaters in senior international competition?

Rafael Arutunian thinks so. The coach of the only two U.S. skaters to win medals at the World Figure Skating Championships since 2009 raised the idea unprompted during a lengthy recent conversation at his training base south of Los Angeles.

For a number of reasons, including health, career longevity and competitive equity, Arutunian favors a minimum age of 18 for senior men and women rather than the current 15.

"Everyone now talks about jumping too much, and people starting to damage themselves," Arutunian said. "How do you want to stop that? In my mind, there is only one way: not allow them to compete (at seniors) until 18.

"If I am 12 years old, and I know real money is after 18, do you think I will do too many quads or I will do just enough quads to win and save my body for later?"

Several other coaches and skaters contacted -- including Alexei Mishin of Russia, Brian Orser of Canada and Tom Zakrajsek of the U.S. -- agreed with Arutunian, especially where female skaters are concerned.

"Raising the age really seems like a good idea because it appears the way the sport is headed could possibly be discouraging to participation by a lot of skaters, particularly ladies, if they have to compete against young girls who have such an advantage (for jumping) with their smaller height and weight," Zakrajsek said.

Such a change in age minimum would need to be approved at the International Skating Union's biennial congress, which meets in early June. According to Italy's Fabio Bianchetti, chair of the ISU Single & Pair Skating Committee, there is no proposal on the matter in the congress agenda expected to be published Monday; that could change, though, as any national federation can seek to file an urgent proposal up to three weeks before the congress.

The rule in place since the 2014-15 season states that to compete in a senior international event, a skater must be at least 15 before the July 1 preceding the event. For several years prior to that, the age minimum of 15 applied to the Olympic Games and world championships but not the Grand Prix Series and other senior events.

"I am personally in favor of increasing the minimum age to 16 (or) 17," Bianchetti wrote in an email. "But for the time being, this is only my personal opinion and not that of the committee -- not because the committee is against (it) but because we have just started to discuss the matter during the meeting held in Milan after the junior worlds, and no official decision was taken."

Mishin, who coached the redoubtable Evgeni Plushenko to his first of five world medals at age 15, favors the change for competitive rather than health reasons.

"It should be girls / boys and ladies / men," he wrote in an email. "The situation looks more honest for competing."

Viktor Petrenko of Ukraine, the 1988 Olympic bronze medalist at 18 and Olympic champion four years later, thinks raising the age to 18 would "bring in more mature skating and (allow) the younger generation to stay more healthy while they are growing."

U.S. Figure Skating President Samuel Auxier thinks a higher minimum age would help with both competitive equity and the sport's waning popularity in much of the world.

"I think they should at least go to 16," Auxier said. "There's a right age for juniors and a right age for seniors. It would certainly be more competitive and appeal to a broader audience if they go to 17 or 18."

Discussions about minimum age have been ongoing in figure skating since the early 1980s, when the ISU instituted a rule that senior competitors had to be 14 (with some exceptions), a reaction to a potential trend toward what were called "one and one-half" couples in pairs: a very young, small girl partnered with an older, bigger, stronger man. It was raised to 15 for worlds and the Olympics beginning with the 1996-97 season, with some exceptions that ended by 2000.

Age became a hot-button issue when the three Olympics from 1994 through 2002 produced the youngest ladies champion ever, 15-year-old Tara Lipinski of the U.S. (1998); the second youngest (at the time she won), 16-year-old Oksana Baiul of Ukraine (1994); and the fourth youngest (when she won), 16-year-old Sarah Hughes of the U.S.

With both the quad revolution in men's skating and the triumph of 15-year-old Russian Alina Zagitova at the 2018 Olympics, the debate has been revived.

Zagitova is seen as just the leading edge of a wave of young Russian tyros like 13-year-old Alexandra Trusova, who landed two quadruple jumps (and seven triples) in the free skate on her way to winning the world junior title last month.

"This young girl (Trusova) doing quads now, how is she going to be when she's 17 or 18?'' Orser said. "It's all fun, with everybody marveling on social media about her, but it could be a very short-lived phenomenon."

In the four years since 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova became the first Russian woman to be crowned Olympic champion, her country has produced, briefly celebrated and immediately replaced an entire generation of female skaters. Both Sotnikova and Julia Lipnitskaia, the 15-year-old phenom and darling of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, left the sport because of injury or burnout before the 2018 Olympic season.

Compatriot Anna Pogorilaya, who won a world bronze medal at age 17 in 2016, was sidelined by back problems last season. Elena Radionova, world bronze medalist at 15 in 2015, and Elizaveta Tuktamisheva, world champion at 18 in 2015, no longer could keep up with the jumping pyrotechnics of Zagitova and Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva, who won her first of two world titles at age 16 in 2016.

During the Olympics, Medvedeva, now 18, wryly noted how hard it already is for her to keep up with the likes of Zagitova and the younger skaters in the Moscow training group directed by coach Eteri Tutberidze.

"You feel so strange, because you are older, and you must be stronger than them," Medvedeva said.

One such girl, 14-year-old Anna Shcherbakova, was seen doing a clean quad lutz-triple toe-triple loop combination at practice in a video posted on social media last week. (Coincidentally, a smiling Zagitova skates into the picture at the end of the clip.)

Because these young Russians are utterly dominating women's skating, Russia is likely to see any effort to raise the age minimum as punishment for its success. Russian figure skating has found a winning formula that other countries might be inclined to follow if they, too, had the control and government financial support Russia has given to the sport since 2007, when Sochi was selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.

When Arutunian raised the age issue in Russian-language interviews four years ago, he said the reaction was uniformly "awful and negative." Now he hears even people in Russia willing to talk about it.

Alexander Lakernik of Russia, the ISU vice president for figure skating, wrote in an email, "I think that this idea needs serious research."

Arutunian, a native of Tbilisi, Georgia, who has coached in the United States since 2000, was schooled as a coach in the authoritarian Soviet sports system, which ended with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 but has been revived to a degree in recent years. He does not believe the current Russian approach should be emulated.

"Why follow Russia? We should follow reality, and the reality is you want to have these kids be able to compete for many years," Arutunian said.

"In young bodies, bones are not formed. If you do so many quads, they get damaged, and they will wind up in a wheelchair. If we don't have evidence of that yet today, we will have it tomorrow."

It may seem odd to hear Arutunian speak of higher age minimums, given that he has coached a virtual child prodigy, 2018 world champion Nathan Chen, to one landmark quadruple jump achievement after another.

Chen was just 15 when he got full base value on two quads in the free skate at the world junior championships; 16 when he became the first U.S. man to land four clean quads; 17 when he became the first in the world to land five quads cleanly; and 18 when he became, this season, the first in the world to land five clean quads (and get full credit for a sixth) at both the Olympics and world championships.

"I was trying to stop him," Arutunian said. "Because of his cultural approach, I couldn't. When he was younger, he always wanted to do more."

Arutunian said training Chen to do quads was not based on repeating quads over and over in practice but in doing triples with a technique that would easily allow him to later make them quads.

"When I set up the technique for an element, it does not mean I want to see them in competition," Arutunian said. "Now, it's not a problem. When he was 15 or 16 and starting to do quads, I wanted him to try only one. I was trying to make him do much less. Now he is 18, and it is no problem."

Zakrajsek is of two minds when it comes to age limits, even if he endorses the idea in general terms. He does not want to deprive people of the chance to see the extraordinary.

After all, no one complained when Michelle Kwan began dazzling the world in winning the 1996 World Championships at age 15 -- partly because she went on to a long and even more dazzling career over the next nine seasons.

"Some of the young skaters we're watching are like the Mozart of figure skating," Zakrajsek said. "Every part of life has its Mozart, the young prodigy beyond their years. It isn't a lot -- how many Mozarts are in music?

"There is a little bit of people looking at the ones who have exceptional ability with a little bit of disdain, which bothers me. Medvedeva and Zagitova and these younger Russians -- that talent and ability should be celebrated."

A potential problem with raising the age to 18 would be confusing viewers who might wonder why junior skaters are doing most (or all) of the eye-catching jumps.

"So the junior champion will be doing stuff that is more technically advanced. So what?" Arutunian says. "If you don't like it (seniors doing easier programs), go and watch junior skating.

"You have a choice: Go to watch jumping or go to watch ladies skate. It's not fair to a lady that the small kid with a boy's body competes against her."

The sport's current scoring and judging paradigm encourages skaters to try the most difficult jumps. Generally speaking, it's easiest to do that when the weight/size-to-strength ratio is ideal, which, in the case of nearly all girls, is before their bodies have undergone the physical changes following puberty.

In the case of men, strength gains that normally come with full physical development in the late teens offset some of the advantage that comes with having a boy's willowy body.

Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan did his first four-clean-quad free skate at age 22.

Canada's Kurt Browning, the four-time world champion who is credited with having landed the first quad in competition (1988), said he began learning the triple axel and a quad at age 19 or 20.

And, with Zakrajsek's help, Mirai Nagasu of the U.S. showed you can teach a relatively old skater new tricks: She began trying to master a triple axel at 21 and this year, at 24, became the first U.S. woman (and just the third in the world) to land a triple axel at the Olympics.

Ashley Wagner, whom Arutunian coached to a world silver medal in 2016 at age 24, is a good example of someone who has gotten better with age. Wagner's most appealing skating came in her 20s, when she also improved her technical arsenal with a triple flip-triple toe loop combination, but her jumps were too inconsistent for her to keep up with the young pogo sticks the past two seasons.

The same goes for another skater appreciated for her artistry, 31-year-old Carolina Kostner, who still was awarded component scores generous enough to keep her within range of global podiums.

In an unexpected way, reigning U.S. champion Bradie Tennell helps make Arutunian's case.

Tennell was totally off anyone's radar until last November. Her training had been limited the previous two seasons by injuries stemming from a lack of core strength, her coach, Denise Myers, said. Tennell did intense physical training and pilates, and came into her own at age 19, with jumps that compared favorably to those of the best in the world. She wound up as the leading U.S. woman at worlds (sixth) and the Olympics (ninth).

"We don't know if raising the age will stop the young ones from working on quads, but we all want the young men and women to be healthy," Myers said. "How many are going to need hip replacements at age 18?

"The days are gone where we need to rush because skating was over for so many kids when they graduated from high school. They can continue to improve if they take care of themselves."

Orser has a jumping prodigy of his own, 13-year-old Stephen Gogolev. At this season's Canadian championships, where he finished 10th as a senior, Gogolev did a flawless quad-triple in the short program and had two planned quads in the free skate (a quad lutz, which he has been attempting since age 12, was doubled; a quad salchow was flawed but rotated).

Orser said he exercises extra caution with his young student.

"We are very much aware of his body and, literally, his growing pains," Orser said. "As soon as he feels any pain, we stop him from jumping until he's feeling better, sometimes for two or three weeks, and he is happy with that. He's not just banging them out all the time."

Would putting a limit on jumps achieve the same result -- fairer competition, less health risks -- as raising the age limit? Arutunian dismissed the idea with a smile.

"I don't believe in saying, 'You can only do this or that,''' Arutunian said. "It's communism."