BEIJING – Some skaters hope that the Olympic doping scandal, which pushes to increase the minimum age of participants, will also focus on what they see as the most pressing issue of sport: body image, body disgrace and disorderly nutrition.
The sport is under close scrutiny after 15-year-old Kamila Valieva of the Russian Olympic Committee tested positive for banned heart drugs and then failed to win medals in a competition in which she was the overwhelming favorite.
Valieva’s difficulty has prompted some speed skating officials to propose raising the minimum age for elite figure skating competitions from 15 to 17 on the eve of the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.
The issue of age is inseparable from the fight against sports eating disorders and body image. Younger, less developed skaters do on the ice what more mature women can’t, particularly quadruple jumps performed in Beijing by Valieva and other teenage skaters working with her heavyweight coach Etheri Tutberidze.
“We see girls who are really young and skinny and who are doing really well in our sport,” said 26-year-old Swedish figure skater Josephine Tallegard, who competed in the women’s singles competition in Beijing. “Maybe that’s why they’re so skinny, because they’re still kids.”
This forces older skaters to keep up.
“It’s usually not like, ‘Oh, you have to look like that,’ but sometimes you can hear, ‘Oh, if you were skinny, you’d jump higher or spin faster,'” Talegard said.
While Valiyeva’s case has focused the world’s attention on doping, skaters say that body image problems are much more common in sports. The 2014 Olympic Skater Class is proof of that.
Julia Lipnitskaya was the golden girl of Russia at the Games in Sochi at the age of 15 before becoming story-warning chronic anorexia when she retired because of her struggle with the disorder.
The famous story of American Gracie Gold about overcoming anxiety and eating disorders to continue the competition, has inspired many skaters.
American ice dancer Caitlin Hawaiyek, 25, said she had had an eating disorder for several years. Not enough has been done to teach young skaters to see that “their bodies are beautiful just the way they are,” she said.
Hawaii is happy to have the support of the coaching staff, nutritionist and coaches in the U.S. national team. “I was really able to see a new way of thinking that allowed me to hug my body,” she said.
American figure skater Alice Liu, who is only 16 years old, said she had found a way to deal with negative statements about her body, but it took her time to truly understand the dynamics in which she finds herself. 10 for the women’s individual competition this week.
“I was dealing with a lot of negativity, like two years ago,” Liu said of the many critics who commented on her very public surge in growth. “At one point I thought: why are they literally coming to a 14-year-old? It’s so weird. They’re just awful for that. Why look at the body of a minor? Obviously, it’s a little weird and wrong. “
American pair of figure skaters Ashley Kane-Gribble believes that a higher age would be beneficial for a sport that she nearly left because of the shame of her body and height. The 26-year-old girl is 5 feet 6 feet tall, making her much taller than many of her peers.
“Give skaters the opportunity to allow their bodies to develop naturally,” Kane-Gribble said. “I know I didn’t come into my own body until many years later.”
Elizabeth Daniels, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies body image in sports, is skeptical that a single change of age can solve the problem.
The bigger cultural problem, Daniels said, is that artistic sports such as figure skating, gymnastics and even diving are evaluated subjectively.
Half of the skating scores are based on how the judges view the performance – the music, the costume, the flow and the overall feel. A more concise figure can help change the culture of diet and diuretics in skating.
“They are judged by how they perform a skill, but also by how they look when they do it,” Daniels said. “If you have this sport and you are judged artistically, the question arises, ‘Does my body fit?’ I think it increases the possibility of eating disorders. “
Skaters or not, but body dissatisfaction is commonly seen in girls over the age of 5, peaks in adolescence and remains constant for 20-year-old women.
Sports such as figure skating are suitable for a variety of physique types that are small and light but fit and muscular, said Luke Corey, a sports medicine nutritionist at the Mayo Clinic.
Four minutes of intense exercise is extremely difficult even for the world’s best athletes, so it’s no surprise that skaters can go to extremes if they think it can help their performance.
“We don’t have to see pain and vulnerability and all that, so it’s hard to understand,” Corey said. “We want more, better, but at what cost?”
Valieva’s case shows that the youngest skaters can be particularly vulnerable to such pressure from adults who promote an approach to winning at all costs, Kane-Gribble said. Raising the minimum age would help.
“You have to be at the age where you can make decisions and think for yourself, take responsibility and be able to know what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said, “and not just rely on those people in charge of you.”
Associated Press writer Candice Choi contributed. Seattle-based AP journalist Sally Ho is on assignment at the Beijing Olympics, covering figure skating. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho.
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