How the new ISU age eligibility rules affect pair skating
Newly-minted World Junior Pair Skating Champions Sophia Baram and Daniel Tioumentsev (USA) shone this season, but they will disappear from the international scene for three years according to the current rules. The ISU adopted the new age eligibility rules at its congress in 2022 to protect young skaters, but at the same time, it became clear that this poses a problem for pair skating.
The age limits for international senior-level competitions are raised from 15 years (before July 1) to 16 years in the upcoming season, and to 17 years in the 2024-25 season. That means that teams with a bigger age difference will not be eligible for international junior nor senior events. Baram turned 14 in November 2022 and will be age eligible for the international senior level in the post-Olympic season 2026-27. Tioumentsev, on the other hand, ages out of juniors this season as he turned 21 on March 14.
Two other teams at the recent ISU World Junior Figure Skating Championships face the same problem – Haruna Murakami, 14 (will be 15 on July 30, 2022) and Sumitada Moriguchi, 21 (will be 22 on December 29, 2022) of Japan. Germany’s Aliyah Ackermann, 14 (will be 15 on May 19, 2022) and Tobija Harms, 20 (will be 21 on June 23, 2022).
The obvious solution is not to pair up skaters with a big age difference as it is mostly the case in ice dance. However, easier said than done. Rico Rex, head coach of the German junior and novice pair skating program, explains why.
“It is not so easy to form pairs,” he said. “Especially in the beginning, a difference in height of 25 centimeters is ideal for the boys to learn the correct technique for lifts and the twist lift. The strength/load ratio has to be right.”
Canadian coach Bruno Marcotte, who works with Murakami and Moriguchi, agreed.
“The skating community has to find a way to put in place a solution to keep the existing pair teams together. If there is no opportunity for these teams (to compete), I don’t see how any of them can survive. Because of the nature of our discipline, when a boy starts doing pairs, it’s safer for the team if the boy is teamed up with someone much smaller, and that is why we see many teams with an age gap in the novice and junior level.”
Other factors come into play, as well. In many countries, there are not so many kids taking up figure skating, and as a result, the pool to choose from to form pairs is smaller. Additionally, girls grow faster than boys and reach their full height around 16 years, while boys are fully grown with 19 years.
Pair skating is already the discipline with the smallest fields. In Calgary at Junior Worlds, 14 pair skating teams competed while there were 30 ice dance couples. In addition to the three teams from Junior Worlds that are affected by the age limits next season, Rex knows of two more teams from Italy and France.
“So the rule change affects many teams as we know, but for me the biggest issue is that it’s affecting teams that were teamed up before the change of rule,” Marcotte pointed out.
The ISU is aware of the problem and held a meeting for coaches during Junior Worlds. The ISU brought forward the idea to increase the age limit for the teams that have competed internationally this season so they can compete next season in juniors.
“This would be a temporary solution for the existing teams and the ISU council can introduce it,” said Rex.
Marcotte, who also attended the meeting, said was a very good and constructive one, with “lots of great ideas exchanged.” He has faith that the ISU will find a positive solution to the problem so that the teams don’t end their partnerships.
“Some of those teams have an amazing future together,” he pointed out. “Imagine you go to high school, then you don’t qualify for university and must take three years off … there’s no way that person will be back.”
A general change in the rule can only be made at the next ISU Congress in 2024. The ISU is considering increasing the age limits for junior pair teams to 21 years for girls and 23 years for the men at the next Congress.
“There are many that do singles until they are 19 and only then switch to pairs,” Rex observed. “This would give us two more years to develop them (in juniors), which would be great. The ISU should be interested in that as we have too few pairs.”
Skate Canada spokesperson Karine Bédard told Golden Skate that while Canada does not have teams that are currently impacted by the rule change, the federation will continue to work with the ISU and other federations to create opportunities to develop pair skaters.
“Right now it’s important to support existing teams and to create more teams,” Marcotte said. “To provide resources for the countries that don’t have coaches specializing in pairs or that don’t have the infrastructure for the pairs teams to develop in a safe environment.”
He supports the idea of raising the junior age limits for pairs in order to give time and opportunity for the skaters that are aging out of juniors in singles to then start the pair discipline.
“That could attract higher quality skaters to pair skating and to become a great pair skater, you have to be a great single skater,” Marcotte summed up.
According to Rex, the ISU plans to hold another meeting during the World Championships in Saitama to address the issue. The national skating federations can then apply to the council for making the exception for the affected teams for the next season.
“The German Federation certainly will do that,” said Rex, who hopes that the ISU Council then will make its decision as soon as possible.
If there is a positive outcome for an exception to the rule, this would allow the affected pair teams to prepare accordingly. Otherwise, they just might split up out of frustration. Baram and Tioumentsev said they are committed to staying together, no matter what happens. However, three seasons are a very long time for a young team.