Kamila Valieva Beijing Winter Olympics

Russia’s Kamila Valieva attends a training session on February 13, 2022 prior the figure skating event at the Beijing 2022 Olympic Games. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP)

Ice skaters will have to be at least 17 to take part in senior competitions after the sport’s governing body voted Tuesday to raise the minimum age from 15.

The decision by the International Skating Union (ISU) congress in Phuket, Thailand, came months after a Beijing Winter Olympics drugs scandal involving then-15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva.

“It’s a very historic decision,” ISU president Jan Dijkema said, after 100 countries voted to support the measure, with only 16 opposed.

Valieva failed a pre-Games drugs test but was allowed to compete and then broke down after falling multiple times during her performance, with the global spotlight on her.

She finished outside the medals with questions swirling about the influence of her entourage following a tense and tearful post-routine encounter with her coach.

The ISU said that raising the age limit was on its agenda well before the Valieva case and acknowledged it had a duty of care to elite adolescent athletes.

The change will be phased in gradually over the coming years, reaching age 17 in the 2024/25 season.

Ahead of the vote ISU director general Fredi Schmid acknowledged the body had faced media pressure and a “major attack” in the wake of the Olympics and reminded delegates the sport’s reputation was at stake.

“The moment of truth is obviously today because the credibility of the ISU will also be scrutinized. The media and the public will watch us very closely so don’t forget this,” he said.

‘Children first’

The skating body’s medical advice backed raising the age limit to 17 arguing it would benefit young skaters physically and mentally, and help extend their careers.

“I feel as administrators of the sport of skating it is your moral obligation and duty to provide these young skaters with the opportunity and time to develop… the skills they require in order to be successful at the senior level,” Dr Jane Moran from the body’s medical commission said.

“They have the right to develop themselves as people during their adolescent age… They don’t need us to be forcing them to compete.”

A medical report said the change would allow junior athletes time to reach skeletal maturity.

“The concern is that during a period of known skeletal vulnerability, the adolescent athlete may be exposed to excessive training and competition loads associated with high-level competition, which places the athlete at greater risk of injury,” the medical report said.

It also warned that some elite adolescent athletes could experience a puberty delay for an average of two years as a result of the physical demands of training and inadequate energy intake.

It noted some were at greater risk of developing eating disorders.

The athletes’ commission surveyed close to 1,000 athletes and coaches and 86 percent were in favor of lifting the age limit.

Some representatives from smaller countries argued the changes would have an negative impact on their talent pool of skaters and ability to send athletes to elite competitions.

But other smaller skating nations such as Iceland and Ireland argued the focus should be on protecting youngsters.

“We have to remember they are children first and athletes second,” Ireland’s representative in Phuket said.

An amendment to raise the minimum age to 16 and then wait until after the 2026 Winter Olympics to revisit the issue was rejected.

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