Duncan Mackay

This week’s decision by the International Skating Union (ISU) to raise the minimum age in competitions from 15 to 17 seems to have divided opinion.

They range from those who believe it will help protect vulnerable teenagers from problems later in their lives to those who believe that talent should not be stifled simply because of an athlete's age.

It was the former Manchester United manager Sir Matt Busby who once said, "If you’re good enough, you’re old enough." It was Sir Matt, coach of United between 1945 and 1971, who in the 1950s promoted many of the club's youth team into the first team with remarkable success, earning them the nickname, "Busby Babes". Sir Matt’s quote is still on the wall in the Manchester United players' dressing room.

Anyone who has seen her skate, knows that Kamila Valieva was certainly good enough to compete at the Winter Olympics in Beijing earlier this year. During the team event at the Capital Indoor Stadium, the Russian became the first woman to land a quadruple jump in the Olympics - two, in fact.

Valieva opened with a huge quadruple Salchow and followed with the difficult triple Axel before landing another quadruple, this time a toe loop in combination with a triple toe loop. It was breathtakingly brilliant, and all too easy such was her proficiency on the ice to forget that this was a 15-year-old girl who, legally, could not smoke, drink, drive or make a decision for herself.

It was only afterwards, when you saw her juggling her pink-cased mobile phone, her ice skates with the fuzzy pink blade guards and the stuffed mascot of the Beijing Games, Bing Dwen Dwen, that you were reminded of how young and vulnerable she is.

Valieva was just not the best 15-year-old skater ever to compete at the Olympics, some of her supporters were saying, they were claiming she was the best skater ever. Period.

Kamila Valieva's performance in the team event at Beijing 2022 was mesmerising in how good it was but the pressure soon told with devastating effects ©Getty Images
Kamila Valieva's performance in the team event at Beijing 2022 was mesmerising in how good it was but the pressure soon told with devastating effects ©Getty Images

"I do feel this burden a bit, this pressure, because this is my first season among adult skaters," Valieva said afterwards to the world’s media. "I believe that I’m coping with this pressure, and sometimes it even pushes me forward. It helps me."

Less than 48 hours later, that pressure became intolerable when I exclusively revealed that she failed a pre-Olympic drugs test and was facing being stripped of her gold medal and facing a possible four-year suspension.

An appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport meant that Valieva was allowed to compete in the singles but after her fourth place, featuring several falls and tumbles, she was left in tears only to be met by an extremely unsympathetic coach as she came off the ice.

Watching a child suffer on live television made for extremely uncomfortable viewing, not least for International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who clamed he was "very disturbed" by the treatment she received from her "closest entourage", a clear reference to her controversial coach Eteri Tutberidze. "This pressure is beyond my imagination, and particular for a girl of 15 years old," Bach said.

It prompted people to ask whether Valieva was too young to compete at the Olympics under such a global microscope.

The age issue is an age-old issue in sports like figure skating and gymnastics, where athletes peak in their mid-teens before their bodies fully mature.

The recent abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics (USAG) involving the team doctor Larry Nassar and many of the sport’s biggest names shone a light on how vulnerable young girls competing in elite sport are to being exploited by older professionals supposed to have their duty of care as their priority.

Joan Ryan's 1995 book
Joan Ryan's 1995 book "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts" revealed the toll of competing at an elite level so young ©Doubleday Books

It is unfortunate that the current debate seems to have become crystalised around Valieva, with most media reports following the ISU announcement concentrating on what happened to her at Beijing 2022. The problem is not a new one and the process for the ISU to increase the minimum age skaters can compete at was already underway before what happened to Valieva became the story of the Winter Olympics.

In 1995, San Francisco Chronicle journalist Joan Ryan wrote a book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters, which examined the difficult training regimens endured by young women in gymnastics and skating. Ryan interviewed 100 former gymnasts and figure skaters as well as trainers, sports psychologists, physiologists, and other experts, focusing on the physical and emotional hardships young women endured for the sake of Olympic glory.

The book revealed that abuse had become part of the normal culture of these sports. Ryan claimed that the image of these athletes' beauty, glamour, class, and sophistication concealed a troubled reality of physical problems, including weakened bones, stunted growth, debilitating and fatal injuries, and psychological issues like eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem, On top of that, there are life sacrifices such as dropping out of school, losing the chance to "be a child", and becoming isolated from their peers and families.

Béla Károlyi was singled out for particular criticism in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes for his influence on USAG, which resulted in what Ryan called "a system of abuse". It was at Károlyi's ranch in Houston, which he had set up in 1981 after defecting from Romania, that Nassar conducted his predatory actions on young gymnasts, first sheltering them from some of the harsh methods in Károlyi's training regimen and earning their trust. Thus, Nassar was able to move freely in this atmosphere of physical and psychological abuse, and sexual abuse became an unchecked part of the scene.

Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and a former gymnast who was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of assault, told the New York Times, "Larry was just a symptom of the real problem at USAG because it fostered an abusive culture for decades."

Nadia Comăneci, at the age of just 14, became the first gymnast to score a perfect at the 1976 Olympics but it later emerged she was physically abused by her coach Béla Károlyi ©Getty Images
Nadia Comăneci, at the age of just 14, became the first gymnast to score a perfect at the 1976 Olympics but it later emerged she was physically abused by her coach Béla Károlyi ©Getty Images

Károlyi’s reputation as the sport’s best coach was based upon the achievements of Nadia Comăneci, the first gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of 10 at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. It is alleged, in files compiled by the Securitate, Romania’s Communist-era secret police force, that Károlyi regularly physically abused Comăneci and starved her of food for up to three days at a time to ensure she remained at the weight he demanded.

It is an abnormally that there is no lower age limit for athletes to compete in the Olympics. Olympic Charter Rule 42 only says: "There may be no age limit for competitors in the Olympic Games other than as prescribed in the competition rules of an IF (International Federation) as approved by the IOC Executive Board."

But there are age restrictions at the Youth Games where participants must be at least 15 years old in the year of the respective competition, but no older than 18.

Banning young athletes from the Olympics would mean we miss spectacular performances like Comăneci or Chinese diver Fu Mingxia’s gold medal in the 10-metre platform at Barcelona 1992.

Would the debut of skateboarding, one of only two Olympic sports that has no minimum age limit, at the Games in Tokyo last year have been so memorable if it had not been for the performances of teenagers like Japan’s 13-year-old Momiji Nishiya and 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki, winners of gold and silver medals?

But, considering all we know about overtraining, exploitation and abuse in sport, of which the Valieva case is just the latest, being good enough does not necessarily mean that you are old enough