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

October 22, 2014


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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