Underage high performance athletes – striking a balance

The biggest story of the Beijing Winter Olympics may have been that of Kamila Valieva, the 15 year-old who was phenomenal in the team figure skating event, but then accused of having failed a doping test two months before. Despite the test results, she was allowed to compete in the individual event, where she stumbled to a fourth place finish after being widely expected to take the gold.

The story didn’t end there. Her coach’s harsh reaction to her performance was widely condemned, including by the head of the International Olympic Committee. That coach is known for producing medal-winning athletes who retire, often in their teens, often following injuries, questionable diet practices and overtraining,

The gold and silver medal winners were also teenagers who trained under this coach. That was the part that really struck me as tragic. Alexandra Trusova, who placed second, broke down after her performance, crying “I hate this sport. I won’t go onto the ice again”. This gifted athlete, who had just landed five quadruple jumps, may never skate again. For non-skating fans, the first quadruple jump in competition was by Elvis Stojko in 1998. Few skaters can do these jumps at all, yet she landed five in the space of about flour minutes.

The pressures on talented youngsters to excel at sports is something I struggle with. On one hand, as a kid who never got to test the limits of her ability but dreamed of being an Olympic backstroker, I want those athletes with the talent and drive to have the opportunity to reach their full potential.

On the other hand, I have watched the horrific case of Larry Nasser, who abused generations of young and vulnerable gymnasts. There have been cases of doping involving young teens in various sports for decades, presumably with the involvement of their coaches or other adults. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that one in five Canadian national team athletes faced “questionable coaching methods, a toxic sport environment, chronic overtraining or unjustified pressure to be thinner”.

Should there be higher age limits for athletes? I don’t know. Some young athletes can do extraordinary things, but they could also be at higher risk for injury because they haven’t finished growing yet. Those quad jumps are a prime example. They put incredible pressure on joints, and may do lifelong damage.

Should we encourage kids to try lots of different things, potentially limiting their chances to excel? I don’t know the answer to that one either. As an adult, I am very happy to do lots of different things, but I have friends who are equally happy focusing on being the best they can be at one sport. My kids were equally split; one played every sport he could, while the other focused like a laser on becoming a dancer.

Should we be taking better care of these young athletes? Absolutely! No matter what path they take, I want them to become adults who enjoy being active, have fond memories of growing up, and possibly become coaches themselves for the next generation of high performance stars, or TimBits hockey teams.

This all feels very inconclusive, so I am going to end with a shout-out to someone who was mostly overlooked in all the skating drama: Kaori Sakamoto, who won the bronze medal with a performance that former Olympian Johnny Weir described as “wonderful reckless abandon and beautiful technical skills”. Her routine was choreographed to celebrate the power of women. The 21 year old was the only medallist who appeared truly happy with her result, and she says she wants to keep skating as long as she can.

Kaori Sakamoto, in a multicoloured costume, skates at the Japanese Nationals in December 2021. She has a huge grin and is clearly having fun.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is a terrible skater, but enjoys it anyway and loves exploring neighbourhood rinks and the Canal.

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