Should the ISU and the National Associations tighten up the rules on ages?

I have been watching figure skating for nearly 10 years now. For most of that time I have been mainly restricted to watching what Eurosport was showing – i.e. the European Championships, the World Championships and the Grand Prix Series.

Until a few weeks ago, I had never watched a national championship before. So, I was expecting them to be run to the same sort of rules as the likes of the Europeans or the Worlds. But, what I saw at the recent Russian Nationals was not what I was expecting.

One thing I always liked about the Grand Prix Series is that it gave us a chance to get a preview of some of the young up-and-coming skaters that were currently too young to compete in the main championships. For example, this year there was Julia Lipnitskaya; last year there was Adelina Sotnikova and Liza Tuktamysheva (and Jason Brown in a gala); the year before there was Yuzuru Hanyu.

But, after watching the 2012/13 Russian Nationals, I have changed my mind completely. Now, I feel the ISU and the National Associations need to tighten up the rules for the ages skaters are allowed to compete in competitions.

Watching the Russian Nationals was the first time that I felt distinctly uncomfortable while watching figure skating. There were too many youngsters who looked like they should be at Primary School!

I should warn you, this discussion will mainly be about the female skaters. The simple reason is that although there were male skaters who looked young, they did not look quite as young as their female counterparts.

The first competition I watched was the Ladies, because I desperately wanted to know how Leonova, Sotnikova and Tuktamysheva got on.

Now, at the stage I started watching (the morning after the SP), only one person had started uploading routines from the SP to YouTube. But they had only uploaded about half of them (it was most of the top 10 finishers, but with a couple missing). But, I watched the performances they had, as I wanted to try to catch up before the gala.

When Elena Radionova came out, my mouth dropped. I had heard a lot about Elena, and so knew that she was a brilliant skater, and a real prospect for the future. But, I had never actually seen her before, or even looked her up. So, I never realised that she was as young as 13. Or that she looked more like 10!

After watching the videos they had, I went hunting for the remaining girls. And after watching the remaining girls, I soon discovered why the first uploader had not uploaded them. With the exception of Elena Radionova (presumably because of her doing so well), the first uploader had skipped all of the really young girls.

I felt really uneasy watching so many very young girls, especially when they were wearing skimpy outfits. OK, so some of them had their legs and arms fully covered, but the outfits were still totally inappropriate for girls of that age.

What made matters worse was that the youngest of the girls looked even younger than they were. Just like I have already pointed out about Elena Radionova. Of all the girls that were born in 1999 or 2000, there was only 1 that did actually look her age – all the rest looked a lot younger.

But, it was in the Pairs competition that I felt the most uncomfortable.

Now, ever since Zhang Hao retired, I have thought that it looks really strange seeing Zhang Dan and his new partner Peng Cheng together. Like, he is nearly double the size of her, and nearly double the age!

During the Russian Nationals, we saw some more cases like this where the guy was a lot bigger and older than the girl. But, for me, there was one partnership that I thought looked very strange together. That of Anastasia Gubanova and Alexei Sintsov.

From looking at him, Sintsov does look quite young, particularly around the face. Maybe 15 or 16 years old. But, Gubanova looks extremely young. To such an extent that she makes Sintsov look like a giant, which he isn’t! She looks about 8!!!

Curiosity got the better of me, so I went searching to see if I could what ages they were. I couldn’t find out anything about Sintsov. But I found one article about Gubanova ( ). Now, this article was written in May 2012, and, unless there is another skater about with the same name (which isn’t beyond the realms of possibility), it said she was born in December 2002. Which would make her only 10!!!

Now, I am not sure about the accuracy of that article (or whether it is even about the same girl – they look very different. But, you know how quickly girls can change their appearance!) But, Sintsov’s partner certainly looks extremely young. So, if she is only 10 (or younger), that begs the question: why on earth is a girl that is too young to do Junior competitions being allowed to compete in a Senior competition?!

Which brings us to another point I wanted to make. Why are we having Junior skaters competing in what is supposed to be a Senior competition? Is it a case of trying to make up the numbers? I would believe that if we were talking about somewhere like Britain, where skating is a VERY minority sport.

But this is Russia we are talking about. Russia (and the USSR) has long been a power-house of figure skating. For goodness sake, they are one of the most successful nations in skating history. And we are not just talking ancient history – they have been very successful in the recent past too. In the past few years, there seemed to be no shortage of good Russian skaters about. To the extent that we were predicting Russia to start dominating in all categories again.

So, what has happened? Why are the Russian Nationals full of Junior skaters? Where are all the good Senior skaters?!

As I said at the start, this was the first National Championship that I have ever watched. So, I am starting to wonder: are all Nationals like this?!

At the time of the Grand Prix Finals, I intended watching the Junior final as well as the Senior. But, I never got round to it. Now that I have seen just how young Elena Radionova is, I am glad I didn’t. I was expecting most of the skaters in the Junior competitions to be towards the top of the age range. You know, kinda like the Youth Olympics – mainly 14 and 15 year olds.

You know, I really enjoyed watching the Youth Olympics. Perhaps it was because I had already seen a lot of the top competitors before [in the GP Series for figure skating, and in the World Cup for ski jumping]. Perhaps it was because the competitors were at the older end of the Junior age scale. I don’t know.

But, what I do know is that I did not enjoy watching children of 12 or 13 skating, even though a lot of them were very good!

So, I would propose that the ISU and the National Associations should tighten up the rules so that:

If you are aged between 12 and 15 you compete in Junior championships
If you are aged 15 or over you compete in Senior championships

Of course, that would take away the opportunity to see previews of the up-and-coming 14 year olds in the GP Series. But, that is a small sacrifice to make, as it will not be long until they are old enough to compete.

Also, I do not like the way that the rules are at the minute that to compete in Senior championships you have to be 15 before the start of the July before the season starts.

The case of Adelina Sotnikova demonstrates perfectly the problems with doing it like this. She was born on the 1st July 1996, the day after the cut off for the 2011/12 season. So, even though she was the Russian Ladies champion in both 2010/11 and 2011/12, she had to wait another year until the 2012/13 season before she could compete in the European and World Championships.

For me, a much better way of doing it would be to have it so that you have to be 15 on or before the start of the individual competitions, rather than before the start of the season. This is how they do it in Motorcycle racing, and it has worked very well, as this example shows.

In the Motorcycle Grand Prix paddock, the schedule is that you have Free Practice on the Friday, Qualifying on the Saturday and Racing on the Sunday. You don’t have to take part in the Free Practice Sessions, but it is always beneficial to have as much track time as you can. But, if you want to race, you MUST do qualifying.

In 2002, the factory Derbi team signed a young up-and-coming rider from Majorca called Jorge Lorenzo to race in the 125GP World Championship. Unfortunately, Jorge had to sit out the first 2 meetings as, at only 14, he was below the age limit of 15. However, his 15th birthday was on the Saturday of the 3rd race meeting – the Spanish GP. So, although he had to sit out Free Practice as he was still underage, he was able to take part in qualifying, and hence the race. He finished the race in 22nd position, and by the end of the season finished 21st in the Championship – ahead of (amongst others) 5 future World Champions.

As for Jorge’s career, although he never won the 125GP World Championship, he came 4th in 2004. He moved up to the 250GP class in 2005, finishing 5th in his debut year, and World Champion in 2006 and 2007. Jorge then moved into the top MotoGP class in 2008, finishing 4th in the championship in his debut year, 2nd in 2009, World Champion in 2010, 2nd in 2011, and World Champion in 2012!

So, starting his international career mid-campaign hasn’t done Jorge Lorenzo’s career any harm!

I cannot see why the same principle cannot be applied in figure skating. This is how it could be done:

In normal competitions where there is no Preliminary Round, the skater should be 15 on or before the day they do their Short Programme.
If, however, the skater does have to qualify for the SP, the skater should be 15 on or before the day they take part in the Preliminary Round.

For Pairs and Ice Dance, it should be the younger member of the partnership that should be 15 on or before the first day they are taking part in the competition.

If this sort of system had been adopted by the ISU and the National Associations already, then:

Adelina (July 1996) would have been able to compete in all of the Senior competitions last season;
Nikol (September 1996) would have been able to compete in all the Senior competitions from the Nebelhorn Trophy onwards;
Liza (December 1996) would have been able to compete in all the Senior competitions from Russian Nationals onwards.

It is interesting to note that this system I am proposing would not have made any difference to Julia Lipnitskaya (June 1998) – she would have to wait until the 2013/14 season to compete in Senior competitions.

So, what do other members think of my ideas? Do you disagree with my ideas? Or, do you have other ideas that you think would be good that I have not thought of?