Originally created 11/23/05

Asada too young for Olympics but still world class

PARIS - Armed with a triple axel and bunches of other jumps, Mao Asada has beaten two-time world silver medalist Sasha Cohen and former world champion Shizuka Arakawa. Her only loss since 2004 has been to two-time world champ Irina Slutskaya.

That won't get her to the Turin Olympics. Nothing can.

While the others are preparing for February's Winter Games, the Japanese skater who turned 15 on Sept. 25, is ineligible, missing the International Skating Union deadline of July 1.

"Right now, she is the finest jumper in the world in the ladies division," said John Nicks, Cohen's coach, who has been coaching close to 50 years and has a few problems with the age eligibility rules.

Asada routinely has done the triple axel, a 3½ revolution jump only a handful of women have mastered. Last December, at the junior Grand Prix final, she was the first woman on that level to have it ratified in international competition. She was 14; Tonya Harding was 20 when she did the first by an American at the U.S. championships in 1991.

Last Saturday, in winning the Trophee Bompard, a senior Grand Prix event, she did seven jumps in the last minute of her free program, when other women were struggling to stay on their feet.

Asada's problem is not the quality of competition, then. It's International Skating Union regulation 108-2, which requires any skater at the Olympics or World Figure Skating Championships to be 15 or older by the July 1 preceding the event.

Tara Lipinski, who was 14 when she won the 1997 world championships, was grandfathered into that event and the subsequent Nagano Games, which she won at age 15. Lipinski was the youngest women's Olympic champion, beating Sonja Henie by two months.

"This is a rule based on medical aspects and not a technical one," said Ottavio Cinquanta, the ISU president and a member of the International Olympic Committee. "And the rule is the age, not the standard of skating."

So while others chase Olympic gold, Asada will concentrate on the Grand Prix final in Tokyo next month and her own national championships. Any Olympic aspirations will have to wait until 2010 in Vancouver.

"I am obviously disappointed, but I have to fulfill the rules of the ISU," Asada said. "I hope to do two triple axels at the Grand Prix finals," for which she's already qualified.

"I also want to do a quadruple jump," she said.

The only woman who has done that in competition is another Japanese, Miki Ando.

"We cannot stop the skater to do a triple jump instead of a double jump," Cinquanta said. "But if the triple jump could result - in training or in competition - in a negative aspect for the health of the skater, than this is something for the medical doctor and not the coach.

"On the basis of the medial advisers of the ISU, the congress had decided that especially for the major events, where particular attention is to be given in the training - such as the Olympic Games and world championships where you have to train more than other events - there is an age limit."

Cinquanta has said the rule may be reviewed and could even be lowered to 14 at a future ISU congress.

Gymnastics, which also is dominated by teenage women, has an age minimum of 16 (any time during the calendar year of the Olympics and worlds). Only in the year preceding an Olympics can a 15-year-old woman participate in worlds.

In swimming, another sport dominated by teenagers, there are no age restrictions. It's all time-based, which tends to weed out the youngest of the young, though Michael Phelps was 15 at his first Olympics and Amanda Beard was 14 in Atlanta.

None of that helps Asada.

"It is a pity because she is a really good skater," Cinquanta said.

"It is a pity," echoed Nicks. "Really, for a junior she is a mature skater."

Nicks should know about young skaters trying to buck the rules.

In 1990, Nicks worked with 13-year-old Natasha Kuchiki, who was skating pairs with Todd Sand. After finishing second in the U.S. championships, they were at first ineligible for worlds. However, the U.S. federation petitioned the ISU and the rule was waived.

Then Kuchiki was injured and did not compete at worlds that year.

In 2000, he coached a 15-year-old Cohen to second place in the U.S. championships behind Michelle Kwan. That should have qualified her for the world team, but the ISU age rule, passed in 1996, prevented her from going.

But there was a loophole at the time, and any skater in the top three at the world junior championships was allowed into the senior worlds. When Cohen came in sixth at junior worlds that year, she failed to take advantage. The loophole was then eliminated.

Cohen, fourth at the Salt Lake City Games, won the silver medal at the world championships the last two years ahead of Kwan. Cohen lost to Asada last weekend at the Trophee Bompard.

She knows how Asada feels being so good and too young.

"I personally think that age shouldn't be a factor, I think it should be skill," Cohen said. "I know I was disappointed not to go when I was 15. I think if you earn it you should go whether you are 13 or 30."


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