Age limit controversy in Class A sport: ‘Hell’ for kids?

Kids and sports first class – is that right? In Tokyo, the 13-year-old is skating for gold. In Beijing, the teenager is the focus of a doping scandal. Experts warn of growth disorders. Something could change in figure skating now.

“I don’t have pressure”: Lilly Stoevasos.
Images by imago / Sven Simon

The individual medal seemed like a formality when 15-year-old personal skater Camila Valleeva traveled to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. But after days of uproar over a positive doping test, the teen couldn’t stand the massive public pressure: Valeeva fought back tears in her freestyle, made a mistake and lost a medal. The disturbing collapse of the young ice princess has sparked calls for a minimum age for first-class sports. The International Skating Union (ISU) plans to vote this week to raise the age limit to 17. In other sports too, children belong to the world elite. Experts warn.

There is no age limit for skaters

The organizer of the Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), leaves the decision to introduce a minimum age for sports federations. Gymnasts must be at least 16 years old, and there is no minimum age for skaters. In response to the Olympics scandal, the International Olympic Committee has urged world federations to review the general minimum age in sports.

In many sports, increasing lifespan will have dire consequences. “A lot of girls are going to lose medals here,” said 15-year-old figure skater Lili Stoevasos. Last year, Berliner was the youngest German to compete in the Tokyo Summer Games. At that time, all women’s medals were awarded to teenagers – in street discipline, gold and silver medals went to two 13-year-olds.

“I don’t think a minimum age is necessary for us,” said Steviacius. Although she feels that the age limit debate makes sense, a distinction must be made between the different types of sports. Skateboarding is relatively less regulated and is practiced with less stress. “There’s no starkly competitive atmosphere,” said Stoephasius. “We enjoy and support each other. I wasn’t under any pressure.”

The German Roller and Line Sports Federation (DRIV) provides her with a “Sports Psychology Staff” so that she can meet all the requirements. In addition, Stoephasius receives media training. Sebastian Barabas, DRIV’s competitive ski sports advisor, said the teen’s participation in a top-tier sport is justified.

“The risk of psychological overload is simply too great.”

Jens Kleinert of the German Sports University Cologne advocates a minimum age in first-class sports and proposes a “first orientation” at a maximum age of 16. “Under that, the risk of psychological overload is simply too great,” said the professor of sports and health psychology. Usually large training volumes carry the risk, said Kleinert, that “in addition to athletic development, other development steps will be delayed. For example, developing friendships.”

In addition, high training loads associated with repeated failures and frustrations may have a lasting effect on personality development. “Sleep, recovery, eating habits and other important components of life can be affected,” the expert explained.

However, a first-class sport for children is not necessarily a “mental hell”, as scientist Heinz Reynders believes. The educator researches the topic of talent development and heads the Youth Development Center for Young Women Football Players at the University of Würzburg. A top-tier sport can certainly contain “positive and meaningful” elements for young talent. And this applies when the entire environment conveys to the adolescent: “competitive sport is positive recognition.” Reynders said it becomes a problem if league officials do not focus, for example, on the welfare of young stars.

The effect of the ISU signal?

Camila Valeeva

Broken: Kamila Valeeva at the Olympics.
imago photos / ITAR-TASS

A decision by the World Figure Skating Association, which wants to vote on a gradual increase in the minimum age to 17 at its annual conference this week, may have a positive impact on other associations. As indicated in the draft Congressional Agenda, the ISU Council’s proposal is to “protect the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of runners.”

In addition to the International Olympic Committee, the German Ski Federation (DEU) also supports this initiative. “This will achieve our goal of preparing our athletes for the highest challenges with greater foresight and a long-term perspective,” said Claudia Pfeiffer, DEU’s Director of Sports.

The educational world appeals primarily to the media, families and associations. “What does child participation bring us? And what does it bring to the child? If we find more honest answers to the first question than to the second question, it is no longer about the athlete and the athlete, but about outside interests,” Reynders said. This is a “deep red” signal.

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