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Mao Asada and the Olympic Games
by Sonia Bianchetti
November 2005

The case of Mao Asada, the young Japanese wonder who has won the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo, beating the World Champion Irina Slutskaya, is creating a lot of discussion on the legitimacy of the rule based on which she will not be allowed to take part in the Olympic Games in Torino next February.

Rule 108 para 2 of the General Regulations, as adopted by the ISU Congress in 1996, reads:

a) In ISU Senior Championships and the Olympic Winter Games only skaters may compete who have reached at least the age of fifteen (15) before July 1st preceding these Events,

b) In International Senior Competitions only skaters may compete who have reached at least the age of fourteen (14) before July 1st preceding the competition.

Asada misses this criterion by less than three months.

The age limit requirements for senior and junior skaters have been an ongoing problem within the ISU. Almost at each ISU Congress there were proposals to increase or reduce the minimum age requirements for the skaters to compete in Junior or Senior international competitions or Championships. The rules have been changed many times, also in view of the fast development of the sport.

In Tokyo, Cinquanta declared that the rule is based on medical aspects not technical ones, but this explanation sounds like a joke rather than a serious concern by the ISU president. The idea that too young skaters must not be pushed to execute too demanding technical elements, especially triple jumps is definitely a wise one to protect their young bodies , but then the rules should reflect this concern by forbidding young girls or boys who have not reached the age of 15 to compete at least in the Senior Grand Prix, not to speak of the final, where these kids have to fight against the top skaters in the World, executing as many difficulties as possible, especially now a days under the new judging system.

Which is the "rationale" behind the fact that Asada was "old" enough to compete in the Grand Prix Final in December 2005, but will be too "young" two months later, to compete in the Olympics?

The least we can say is that this rule is a total nonsense and it should have been changed already in 1997 when the Grand Prix series of Events was introduced. Our governing body should have paid more attention to the consequences of such an "oversight" which will cause more criticism and damage to the sport in a moment when its popularity is definitely not at its best!

Cinquanta has stated that to change this rule he should convene an extraordinary Congress, but this is not correct either. The ISU Constitution, as amended at the 2004 Congress to provide authority to the Council, belies such statement. Newly added Article 17 paragraph 1 provides as follows:

in the case that exceptional circumstances so require and warrant

(i) modification of any Rule in the General Regulations and in all Special Regulations,

(ii) suspension of applicability of any Rule in the General Regulations and in all Special Regulations,

(iii) granting an exception from a requirement specified in any Rule in the General Regulations and in any Special Regulations in order to prevent unusual hardship.

It only depends on what in the ISU President's opinion is in the best interest of the sport.

It may be that this is not an "exceptional circumstance" or that it will result in an "unusual hardship," but the Council has repeatedly relied upon this provision of the Constitution to change the rules in far less exceptional situations and involving much less "hardship" than results from barring a competitor from the Olympics and the World Championships.

Is Cinquanta afraid that if he relies on this provision it will highlight two hypocrisies in his positions: (1) the age-limit was never really about medical concerns but instead resulted from his stated concerns that the "ladies'" event of Figure Skating was being taken over by "little girls," and (2) the new system puts very much pressure on athletes to attempt jumps that do risk their health and have this year resulted in far more injuries, and far more serious ones, than have been in any year in the past ?

With this I do not want to say that the rule must be changed to favour this marvellous Japanese skater, still, the ISU should consider the negative impact that the absence of one of the best skaters in the world could have on the Olympic Winter Games 2006 in Torino because of a silly rule.