Archive | October 22, 2014

Is Women’s Figure Skating on the Eve of an Age Doping Scandal?

October 22, 2014

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By Stephanie Leong – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

With the 2014/15 ISU (International Skating Union) Grand Prix Series beginning next week in Chicago, audiences can expect to see an array of new skaters emerge in a post-Olympic season. Skating fans will remember the hype surrounding Russian fifteen-year-old Julia Lipnitskaia in Sochi and the extremely high expectations for her to medal in the women’s competition. However, Lipnitskaia almost did not qualify for the Russian team – not due to her talent, but her age. Had Julia been born 40 days later, she would have been too young to compete at the Olympics, European Championships, or World Championships (all of which she medaled in). The ISU Constitution and General Regulations, rule 108 1(a) states:

The word “Senior” is used in this Rule and in the ISU Statutes to describe certain competitions that have a minimum age entry requirement of fifteen (15) years, determined in each instance by the birthday of the Skater that occurs before the July 1st that immediately precedes the relevant competition.

Elite skaters under fifteen must compete as juniors. Although international ISU junior competitions exist, these events are rarely publicized and almost never broadcast in North America, limiting opportunities for junior skaters to obtain sponsorship or international acclaim. With top juniors often outscoring senior skaters, fans may be asking whether the minimum age requirement should be removed to increase competitiveness and prevent ‘age doping’.

What is Age-Doping?

Age doping is falsifying an athlete’s age to meet a requirement. To date, this topic has largely been discussed in the context of women’s gymnastics. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics China placed third in the group competition, but was later stripped of their medals after an investigation determined one athlete was only fourteen at the time of the Games (minimum age for gymnasts was sixteen). To date, there have not been allegations of age doping in an ISU competition. However, women’s figure skating is certainly an age sensitive sport. The idea that younger skaters have an advantage over more mature competitors is rooted in basic physiology. Skaters under fifteen often weigh less and have a lower body-fat ratio, a result of not yet experiencing puberty. This translates into being able to rotate faster, meaning easier triple-triple jump combinations. In fact, it is not uncommon for a skater who reaches elite competition before puberty to later disappear from competition when their body changes and jumping technique must be completely retaught.

Why is this an issue now?

Contemporary changes to skating’s scoring system also provide young skaters with a potential advantage over their competitors. Figure skating is a unique sport as skaters are rewarded for technical athleticism, as well as their artistry and presentation. The cumulative points calculation (CPC) judging system, implemented after the 2004 Salt Lake City Olympics, recognizes this duality and awards points in a way similar to artistic gymnastics (for full explanation on scoring see here). Under the CPC system scoring is a mathematic formula. This aids young skaters as it is easier to gain points in the technical score, than in the presentation score, which is where older skaters outperform youngsters, as developing artistry and skating skills generally occurs later in an athlete’s career. Additionally, growing popularity for the sport is putting increased pressure on young skaters to win. Skating is popular in North America every four years, but in Japan and South Korea it is an obsession. In a recent Wall Street Journal article, Mao Asada was named Japan’s favourite sports star, dethroning baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki. In South Korea, skating superstar Kim Yuna is undoubtedly responsible for skating’s surge in popularity and was a major lobbyist for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Additionally, China will host the ISU World Championships for the first time in March, a sure sign of skating’s popularity in that country.

Why should we be concerned about the possibility of age doping?

Apart from obvious detriments to the integrity of sport, the health of young athletes is a major concern. In 1997 the minimum age requirement in gymnastics was raised from 15 to 17 citing athlete burnout, musculoskeletal damage, early onset osteoporosis, and eating disorders amongst younger athletes. Although it is possible that lowering the minimum age rule may increase competitiveness, this should not be done at the cost of athlete health. Skating currently does not have an age doping problem, but given the similarities between gymnastics and figure skating, as well as contemporary factors, this is certainly something the ISU and national federations should consider.

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Does the O’Bannon decision shake the foundation of the concept of amateurism in sport?

October 22, 2014

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By Sangin Safi – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

In the ever-continuing saga of Ed O’Bannon’s battle against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the United States District Court Judge, Claudia Wilken, delivered a judgment on August 8th, 2014 that has the potential to shake the foundation of NCAA’s principle of amateurism in sport (i.e. no compensation for its student athletes).

In the 99-page decision, Wilken issued an injunction against a ban on payments to players for the commercial use of their names, images and likeness (NILs) in things like video games. The ruling also allowed the NCAA to cap the payments at $5,000 per year. What this means is that athletes will now be able to share in some of the multi-million dollar revenues that the NCAA generates annually. Although the ruling definitely puts a dent on NCAA’s principle of amateurism, analysts and commentators are divided on whether the ruling completely shakes the foundation of the principle. Specifically there seems to be a divide with respect to the potential future implications of the decision.

On the one hand, there are commentators that claim the ruling completely destroys amateurism in college sports. For example, Forbes magazine contributor Matt Powell states, “…the Wilkens (sic) ruling clearly destroys the ‘collegiate model’ thesis. Any pretense of amateurism…is now over.” Powell believes that the $5,000 annual cap on compensation will not hold for long. He further believes that players will also be “freed from the silly enforcement rules like the prohibition of selling memorabilia on EBay” and he even contemplates whether player endorsements might be something of the future.

On the other hand, there are commentators that insist that the reach of the decision should not be overstated. For example, contributors at The New York Times maintain that although NCAA was the clear loser in the case, the decision should not be overstated. According to them, “[p]ost-O’Bannon collegiate athletics won’t operate according to free-market principles. Far from it. Players did not win the right to sign endorsement deals.” They also note that the NCAA may keep the $5,000 annual payments in a trust until players graduate or leave. Therefore, according to the contributors, although the NCAA will have to adjust to the new order, the decision does not completely destroy amateurism in sport.

Although the cautious position by The New York Times is a safe one to take, the August 8th ruling definitely clears a wide path for future litigation against the NCAA with respect to student athlete compensation. As Jon Solomon of CBS Sports notes, there is currently a looming lawsuit being brought by a prominent sports attorney, Jeffery Kessler, who is seeking a free market for college recruits. The O’Bannon ruling is surely to boost the confidence of Mr. Kessler in pursuing vigorous arguments in support of further student athlete compensation.

Furthermore with the August 8th decision, a federal judge has now confirmed that college sports are indeed a big money making enterprise; therefore it is inconceivable that the NCAA can continue to make multi-million dollars in revenue without sharing some of it with the value drivers of the business, the student athletes themselves. Indeed, one could sense the rise of a new area of unjust enrichment within the context of lex sportiva (i.e. sports law).

Although the NCAA is currently appealing the decision, the August 8th ruling definitely sends a strong message to everyone that the NCAA can’t hide behind the cloak of amateurism and continue to earn big money. As the saga of Ed O’Bannon continues, and likely to be followed by other lawsuits, the amateurism model simply cannot be sustained in college sports in the long run.

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