Portugal Colonial - 'Throwaway society': Valieva saga puts spotlight on teen skaters' ages

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'Throwaway society': Valieva saga puts spotlight on teen skaters' ages
'Throwaway society': Valieva saga puts spotlight on teen skaters' ages

'Throwaway society': Valieva saga puts spotlight on teen skaters' ages

On the ice, the 15-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva exudes composure and emotional maturity.

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But as a Beijing Olympic doping scandal exposes the teenager's vulnerability, debate has reopened over age in women's figure skating and whether young athletes are adequately protected.

Female skaters have always skewed young, with six of the last seven Olympic golds won by teenagers.

This year is likely to be no exception, with Valieva and her 17-year-old teammates Alexandra Trusova and Anna Shcherbakova tipped to sweep the podium.

All three train with coach Eteri Tutberidze, who has led a revolution in women's figure skating over the last eight years, producing teenage Russian star after star capable of athletic feats of ever-increasing complexity.

But concerns have been raised over whether the technical brilliance they display withers away with puberty, leaving them prone to burn-out, injury and, ultimately, the figure-skating scrapheap.

Former figure skater Katarina Witt, who won gold in 1984 and 1988 for East Germany, used the term "throwaway society".

"For years I have asked why 15 and 16-year-old Russian talents win the Olympic Games with exceptional performances and then leave the world stage of competitive sports forever, too often with health issues," she wrote on Facebook.

Witt called for the minimum competition age for senior skaters to be raised from 15, an idea which has been floated before in the sport but has never borne fruit.

In Tuesday's short programme in Beijing -- which Valieva won -- Karen Chen, considered a veteran at 22, said that when she was young she wasn't afraid of anything.

"I was just kind -- I don’t know if robot was the right word -- but my coach would tell me to go do something and I would just go do it," said the American.

Her teammate Mariah Bell, at 25 the oldest US woman to compete in Olympic figure skating since 1928, said she "absolutely" believed the age limit should be changed.

Switzerland's Alexia Paganini agreed that it would provide more "motivation to create a skater who has longevity", while Natasha McKay of Britain said that injuries might be reduced.

- 'Quad Squad' -

Tutberidze's school of skating sensations exemplify these concerns -- so far, none have seen more than one Olympics.

Her breakout star, Yulia Lipnitskaya, was 15 when she won Olympic gold at the 2014 Sochi Games in the team event.

Her mesmerising "Schindler's List" routine dazzled observers, who predicted a glittering career. Three years later, Lipnitskaya retired.

In 2016, she had suffered a serious leg injury and never again reached top form.

She finished last in her final competition, later telling Russian media that afterwards she "came home, put (her) skates in the closet, and not seen them since".

She also revealed she had undergone treatment for anorexia.

At the 2018 Olympics, two different teenage Russians -- again, both Tutberidze's students -- were on the podium.

Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva took gold and silver respectively -- but this Olympics, they too have been eclipsed.

Both say they cannot match the "quad squad" of Valieva, Trusova and Shcherbakova -- a reference to the trio's ability to perform quadruple jumps, where the skater rotates four times in the air.

Experts say quads are easier for younger women who have not yet gone through puberty, and are lighter and more aerodynamic.

- 'Too dangerous' -

Now 19, Zagitova told the Olympic news site that quads were "too dangerous" for her to do and that she would need to lose weight to be able to attempt one.

Medvedeva has been plagued by injuries, including one to her back that she says left her only able to jump in one direction at the age of 22.

Zagitova, who is working as a broadcaster at the Beijing Games, said it was hard for her to watch figure skating.

"You still get the same feelings in your soul," she said. "There's a feeling of euphoria, as if you yourself were out on the ice."

Shcherbakova and Trusova have been dogged by speculation they are skating through injuries this season.

But after Tuesday's short programme, asked whether her coach's methods were too harsh, second-placed Shcherbakova was defiant.

"I've been in her group since I was nine," she scowled.

"If I’m not changing the coach, it means that I like this coach. We are very fruitful together, we are achieving a lot, as you see."