In June 2010, the International Skating Union Council will present a proposal to amend Rule 108 of the Constitution to change the age limits for figure skating, including ice dancing. The ISU Council previously proposed to change this rule at the 2008 Congress, but the motion failed. This year’s proposal, in part, responds to feedback from the failed 2008 proposal. Instead of taking effect for a season that begins just several months after the Congress, the ISU would give skaters and federations a year before the change takes place. The one year reprieve is only for the ice dance and pairs disciplines. The change would go into effect for the 2010/2011 season for singles skaters.
The current constitution defines a junior ice dancer as a skater who has reached the age of 13 but not the age of 19 (ladies) and 21 (men) before the July 1st immediately preceding relevant events/competitions (Rule 108, page 94). The new proposal (ISU Congress Agenda, page 65) would lower the upper age limit for all junior level skaters to age 18 before the July 1st immediately preceding relevant events/competitions. The change is proposed to begin in the 2011/12 season.
Though no specific reason is given as part of the proposal, many believe that the change is to push the highest-achieving junior skaters into the Youth Olympic Games, where the age range is 15 to 18 years old. The first Winter Youth Olympic Games will take place in 2012, the year after these proposed changes would begin.
If this is the reason, it has some validity. It is only logical that a sporting federation that cooperates with the International Olympic Committee would want to send its junior skaters to the IOC’s newest major event. But what of the effects that this rule change would have on junior ice dance?
As dance continues to develop, it is currently trending toward being more and more athletic and even acrobatic. It takes years to develop the upper body strength required for pairs and dancers and many times, the younger boys are simply not as well developed. Lumping male ice dancers and pairs skaters into the same age limits that affect singles figure skaters and speed skaters could stall the development of the sport. It could also endanger the safety of the young girls who are being lifted and thrown.
Ice dancers often spend several seasons in the junior circuit, trying to develop the speed, power, and reputation that will allow them to pass as mature skaters on the senior level. 37 of the teams that competed this year on the junior international circuit will still be eligible to compete in the 2010/11 season. If the current age limits remain in tact, 20 will be eligible to continue as juniors in 2011/12. If the rule were to change, however, only three current junior teams would still be eligible for the junior circuit in two years.
Between 2001 and 2010, the world junior champions in ice dance would have fit the proposed new age limit only three times. Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto, would not have been eligible for the World Junior Championships in 2001, when they finished second, or in 2002, when they won gold. Their success on the junior circuit formed the foundation of their partnership, gave them time to find their own style, and propelled them onto the senior circuit, where they eventually won four world championship medals and a silver medal at the 2006 Olympic Games.
The year after Belbin & Agosto won their world junior title, Oksana Domnina & Maxim Shabalin took home the gold in 2003. In the first year of their partnership, they were able to get their feet wet in junior competition before beginning to climb the senior ranks the following year. Of course, they eventually became world champions and Olympic medalists. If the new proposed age rule had existed in 2003, Domnina & Shabalin would have had to begin their career together as seniors.
The ISU Constitution states one of its Objects as: “The ISU shall work for broadening interest in Figure and Speed Skating sports by increasing their popularity, improving their quality and increasing the number of participants throughout the world.” Will this new proposal really improve the quality of skating or increase the number of participants throughout the world if it will reduce the field significantly?
What will happen to the teams who would become ineligible? Forced to move up earlier than they may have originally planned, some of the teams will enter the senior ranks before they are ready. Of course, this happens all the time, but if such a huge number of teams are forced up, it will happen at a rapid rate over the next few years. Teams that move to senior before they are ready will create a virtual dogfight for funding at the national level in countries with large federations. Already in Canada, for example, funding is limited to the five highest-ranked teams at the previous season’s Canadian Championships. Teams that place outside of the top five are sometimes given consideration for an international assignment, but it seems to be on a season-by-season basis. In countries with smaller federations, fighting for funding and assignments is less of an issue, but teams will be affected by the shortened window for gaining experience and establishing a reputation.
With fewer opportunities to compete and an increased number of teams fighting for the same amount of funding, it is inevitable that ice dancers would give up more easily. For the first time, it seems, ice dance is currently on an upswing in both Europe and North America. As the sport changes and as the athletes push the boundaries, an exciting environment develops. Skaters want to be a part of it and they feel like they have a chance to succeed because the pecking order is not quite as rigid as it once was. Why discourage participation in dance when it is going so well?