Raising competition age for figure skaters not enough to combat abusive coaches, former skaters say

By the time she was a teenager, Canadian figure skating champion Sandra Bezic was flying around the world to compete.

Pushed by her parents to be at the top of the sport, she made it to the Olympics in 1972, when she was just 15 years old.

At 17, Bezic retired from skating. She was struggling with an injury, burnout and pressure from those around her.

“I hit a wall. There was no support system in place at the time. It was just, you know, sort of all my fault I failed,” she told CBC News in an interview.

Bezic, now a coach herself, is one of several Canadian figure skating icons who are welcoming new international rules that will gradually raise the age of competition from 15 currently to 17 by the time of the next Winter Olympics in 2026.

The International Skating Union (ISU) says the restriction is aimed at “protecting the physical and mental health, and emotional well-being of the skaters.”

Sandra Bezic, who represented Canada in pairs skating at the 1972 Olympics, agrees with raising the minimum age for competing in elite figure skating, but says more action should be taken against abusive coaches. She is pictured in Toronto on April 5, 2019. (CBC)

The move follows a controversy at this year’s winter Olympics after Russian coach Eteri Tutberidze berated tearful 15-year-old competitor Kamila Valieva after her disastrous performance. Days earlier, Valieva had tested positive for a banned drug, but was permitted to compete because athletes under 16 are generally not held responsible for having taken banned drugs.

“We were watching child abuse in real time. And it was devastating. It was horrifying,” said Bezic of Tutberidze’s conduct towards the young athlete.

Kaetlyn Osmond, who retired at 23 as Canada’s most decorated female singles figure skater with three Olympic medals, told CBC Sports she supports raising the age for competing.

“I think raising the age of 17 will just help the longevity of the sport, help a body fully mature before the demands and the pressure of the sport.”

WATCH | Kaetlyn Osmond welcomes decision to raise minimum competition age:

Kaetlyn Osmond’s thoughts on ISU raising figure skating minimum age to 17

Olympic and world medalist Kaetlyn Osmond talks about her experience as a young skater and why she supports the ISU raising the minimum age for senior skaters.

The age change isn’t expected to keep many young Canadians out of international competitions, as they tend to be older than 15 or 16.

In a statement, Skate Canada chief executive Debra Armstrong said the national federation fully supports the age change.

“The voice of the athlete was heard loudly and clearly in this vote. The safeguarding of athletes’ health and wellbeing needs to be at the foundation of all that we do.”

Calls for tougher penalties for coaches

However, some former skaters say raising the age limit is not a silver bullet, and there should be tougher penalties for coaches who abuse athletes.

“There are not enough strong and lasting consequences… It happens way too often that individuals who show behavior that is harming athletes, then a year later are just continuing [to coach]”said Jamal Othman, a former Swiss national champion figure skater who is now the managing director of the Ice Academy of Montreal, a training institute for ice dance competitors.

Bezic agrees. “You’ll always have that parent who pushes too hard or that coach who pushes too hard, and so there needs to be checks and balances for that.”

Othman points out that raising the age limit will also level the playing field for older athletes, in a sport where young skaters’ narrower hips and shoulders give them an advantage when performing jumps – but which can also cause serious injuries that force them into early retirement .

Valieva, center, cries after her disastrous performance in the women’s free skate at the Beijing Olympics on February 17. Her coach Eteri Tutberidze, left, was criticized for berating the teen. Also pictured is choreographer Daniil Gleikhengauz, right. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)

“The audience is super excited when there is a 15-year-old girl coming with five quads to a competition. There is a huge hype around that. And it is easier to do because when you have the body of a 15-year- old, compared to a 20- or 22-year-old, it’s just physics, “Othman said.

And for the young athletes, Bezic says, there’s also an advantage: they will be able to slow down a little, and take their time to succeed in the sport they love.

“I sit here and think, my competitive career was over at 17 when I was burned out – so it really would have served me well.”

CBC News has reached out to the International Skating Union for comment.

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