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Sports

Raising the minimum age

This past weekend, my 12-year old’s travel soccer team played a match against a team with more than a few 13-year old’s, which tends to happen in spring seasons as clubs look to play on a full-sized pitch for the first time. My son plays right fullback, and I believe is quite good at it, as I suppose all parents tend to believe, but he is fairly slight and average height for his age. And in this game, he was largely marking a forward on the other team that was a year older, was a good foot taller, and probably fifty pounds heavier as well. I’ll spare you the full game story and me bragging about my kids, but I’ll just say this. When it comes to youth sports, one year can make a huge difference.

Which brings us to women’s Olympic figure skating, one of the few sports where transitioning into adulthood could be viewed as the end of your career. Like women’s gymnastics, elite and Olympic athletes typically come at a young age, which brings with it the psychological and sociological challenge or even trauma one might expect. That, it seems, will finally change, as the International Skating Union has agreed to raise the sport’s minimum age for elite competition from 15 to 17, a transition that will happen gradually over the next two years and be in place for the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy. That decision stands to change the entire nature of the sport and how people prepare, especially in places that build prodigy pipeline programs to take kids from pre-school to podium with as little interference as possible.

One such place is the Russian sports machine, a primary impetus for this rule change. In the recent Beijing Winter Olympics, 15-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned substance leading up to the Games, a result obfuscated by the Russians, which led to a series of arguments and controversies in a skating competition best described as tragic for all involved, including Valieva. At the very least, it exposed the well-known reality that Valieva, like we assume many of her young competitors, was raised in what can only be considered an abusive competitive environment, where girls years from being an adult by any legal or reasonable standard suffer emotional and, it seems physical abuse in the name of competition. That revelation, and the complete implosion of one of the Olympics’ premier events, became the final straw in trying to save the sport from consuming itself from within. With that, we will now have minimum age requirements for elite competition, which we hope will minimize what can largely be considered child abuse and at least allow competitors to be more developed, physically and mentally, before carrying the weight of a nation in global competition.

It's hard to argue against this rule change, even though the vote wasn’t unanimous. Russian skating officials argued this was specifically targeting them and their skating program, which to be fair, I suppose it is. That’s not to say that there aren’t abuses elsewhere, nor will this mandate eliminate abusive practice in elite youth sport. Just go to a regional youth baseball tournament to remind yourself of that. As long as there are exorbitant incentives to winning, fiscal and otherwise, and parents or governments who can benefit from that pursuit, we’ll have coaches behaving badly, to put it mildly.

But perhaps we must consider a question that oddly doesn’t get asked enough. What do the kids want? I say this as someone who’s raising two athletic boys, now 12 and 14, both who enjoy playing competitive sport and also bring different levels of competitive drive and, well, angst, to that experience. And while they’ve both learned to handle winning and losing with relative grace, they also both bring a fair amount of competitive desire to the table, something I’ve likely furthered by putting them on any number of teams and camps and other things parents do reflexively for their kids. Which makes the line between healthy and lost childhood probably hazier than I’d care to admit. Which means that I have to balance encouraging their obvious interest in competition and reminding them that, in the end, none of really matters – at least not the results.

What do these elite skaters, who start before some people can run, actually want? That’s something I’d hope more people in the skating world ask over the next few years as the minimum age rises. Because in youth sports, every year can make a big difference.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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