The debate over the age of figure skating also reveals body image challenges

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BEIJING (AP) — Some figure skaters are hoping an Olympic doping scandal that spurs raising the minimum age for competitors will also draw attention to what they see as the sport’s most pressing issue: body image, body shaming and eating disorders.

The sport is under scrutiny after 15-year-old Kamila Valieva tested positive for a banned heart drug by the Russian Olympic Committee and then failed to win a medal at an event for which she was the overwhelming favorite.

Valieva’s ordeal has prompted some skating officials to propose raising the minimum age for elite figure skating competitions from 15 to 17 ahead of the 2026 Winter Olympics in Italy.

The age issue is inseparable from the sport’s struggles with eating disorders and body image. Younger, less developed skaters are doing things on the ice that more mature women’s bodies can’t, notably the quadruple jumps that Valieva and other teenage skaters perform in Beijing with their embattled coach, Eteri Tutberidze.

“We see girls who are really young and skinny and who are doing really well in our sport,” said Josefin Taljegård, a 26-year-old Swedish figure skater who competed in the women’s individual competition in Beijing. “Maybe that’s why they’re so skinny — because they’re kids.”

This puts pressure on older skaters to keep up.

“It’s usually not like, ‘Oh, you have to look like that,’ but sometimes you hear, ‘Oh, if you were skinnier you would jump higher or spin faster,'” Taljegård said.

While the Valieva case has drawn world attention to doping, skaters say body image issues are more prevalent in sports. The 2014 Olympic Skaters class is proof.

Yulia Lipnitskaya was Russia’s golden girl at the Sochi Games when she was 15 before becoming a cautionary tale of chronic anorexia when she retired because of her struggles with the disorder.

American Gracie Gold’s well-known story about overcoming anxiety and an eating disorder to continue competing was an inspiration to many skaters.

US ice dancer Kaitlin Hawayek, 25, said she has had an eating disorder for several years. Not enough has been done to teach young skaters that “their bodies are great just the way they are,” she said.

Hawayek is happy to have the support of her coaching staff, nutritionist and coach on the US team. “I was really able to see a new way of thinking that has allowed me to embrace my body,” she said.

US figure skater Alysa Liu, just 16, said she found a way to deal with negative comments about her body, but it took her some time to really understand the dynamic she was being drawn into. The American prodigy placed top 10 for this week’s women’s individual event.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of negativity like I did two years ago,” Liu said of the many critics who have commented on her very public growth spurt. “At one point I thought, why are they literally coming for a 14-year-old? That’s so strange. They’re just kind of creepy for it. Why are they looking at a minor’s body like that? It’s just a little weird and kinda wrong, obviously.”

American pair skater Ashley Cain-Gribble believes a higher age limit would be helpful for the sport, which she almost quit because she was ashamed of her strength and size. The 26-year-old is 5ft 6 tall, which is significantly taller than many of her peers.

“Give skaters the opportunity to allow their bodies to develop naturally,” said Cain-Gribble. “I know I didn’t really come into my own body until many years later.”

Elizabeth Daniels, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who studies body image in sports, is skeptical that age change alone could solve this problem.

The bigger cultural problem, Daniels said, is that artistic sports like figure skating, gymnastics, and even diving are judged subjectively.

Half of a skating score is based on how the judges view the performance – music, costume, flow and overall feel. A more concise metric could perhaps help change the culture of dieting and diuretics in skating.

“You’re judged by how you perform a skill, but also by how you look when you do it,” Daniels said. “When you do a sport like that and you’re judged in that artistic way, the question is, ‘Is my body up to it?’ I think that increases the potential for eating disorders.”

Skater or not, physical dissatisfaction can generally be observed in girls by the age of 5, peaks during adolescence and remains constant throughout a woman’s 20s.

Sports like figure skating cater to body 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 exertion is extremely difficult for even the best athletes in the world, so it’s no surprise that skaters go to extremes when they feel it will benefit their performance.

“We’re not supposed to see pain and vulnerability and all that, so it’s hard to understand,” Corey said. “We want bigger, better, but at what cost?”

Valieva’s case shows that the youngest skaters may be particularly vulnerable to such pressure from adults pushing a win-at-any-cost approach, Cain-Gribble said. Raising the minimum age would help.

“You have to be of an age where you’re able to make decisions and think for yourself, take responsibility and know what’s right and what’s wrong,” she said, “and not just focus on those people.” who are responsible for you can leave.”

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Associated Press writer Candice Choi contributed. Seattle-based AP journalist Sally Ho is on duty at the Beijing Olympics covering figure skating. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/_sallyho.

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