What if you had a Winter Olympics and the best figure skater in the world wasn’t allowed to participate?

Jack Gallagher

That’s the bizarre position the International Skating Union has worked itself into.

Following the judging debacle at the 2002 Salt Lake Games, it didn’t seem possible that skating could fall any lower. Having to award two gold medals in pairs, because of the misconduct of a judge, seemed about as embarrassing as it could get.

Yet here we are, nearly four years later, and the good old folks at the ISU have found a new way to sabotage themselves.

Japan’s newest skating star, 15-year-old Mao Asada, will be relegated to watching the action in Turin next February from beside the ice due to the ISU’s age-limit rule, which prevents skaters from taking part in the Olympics if they turn 15 after July 1 of the year prior to the Games.

That’s bad news for Mao, who came bouncing into the world on Sept. 25, 1990. In this case, 2 months and 25 days adds up to four more years, which is how long Asada will have to wait to get a shot at skating in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta has spent much of the past two weeks defending the age-limit rule, which was voted in for medical reasons in 1996 and supported at the time by Japan.

Even after the rule was approved, the ISU still left itself an out, by allowing world junior championship medalists (Asada won the gold in March 2005), to participate in the Olympics, regardless of their age.

In fact, American Tara Lipinski used this exemption on the way to the gold medal at the 1998 Nagano Games.

However, in its infinite wisdom, the ISU did away with this waiver in 2000.

The problem when trying to apply a blanket edict to everybody in the universe, is that there are always going to be exceptions to the rule — which is exactly what we have in this case.

I’ll bet nobody would have believed that Michelle Wie, who was 14 at the time, could shoot a 68 in a PGA tournament, which she did back in 2003.

Does anybody in their right mind really think that Asada — who became the first female ever to perform two triple axels in competition when she did it at the Japan nationals on Christmas Day — would be risking her long-term health by participating in the Olympics?

Of course not.

The “medical reasons” cited by the ISU, when it proposed the age-limit rule, was to discourage overzealous parents and federations from pushing their young prodigies too hard, too fast.

But let’s get real. No rule is going to prevent adults from encouraging talented kids into skating if they think there is a possibility for fame and fortune.

To think so is the height of naivete.

Nevertheless, Cinquanta and other ISU officials have been walking around with their hands up as if they are powerless to do anything about Asada and the Olympics.

My guess is they would love to do something about it but are afraid to call a special session to have an exception made for Asada, who won the Grand Prix event in Paris in November, for fear that other nations would be up in arms over the action.

Sal Zanca, a Paris-based journalist who has covered figure skating for more than 20 years, doesn’t feel that the ISU should adjust its rules to help Asada.

“A rule is a rule. No changes in midstream to suit a good individual,” he said.

Zanca makes a very perceptive point when it comes to addressing the uproar in Japan over Asada not being able to skate in Turin.

“How come the Japanese federation didn’t ask about this two years ago, when they saw it coming? They could have put in a request for a change at the last ISU Congress in June 2004, when the new scoring system was adopted.”

In spite of Asada’s prowess on the ice, Zanca doesn’t see the need for the International Olympic Committee to have to make special exemptions in cases like hers.

“The IOC pressured the ISU at the 2002 Olympics to give two gold medals (in the pairs), but that was a case of outright cheating by a judge,” Zanca said.

“This is an individual case, and it is not right for the IOC to change the rules before the game to accommodate Japan.”

I have to believe that the ISU wants the best skater in the world on the ice in Turin, but has backed itself into an untenable position, and doesn’t have any realistic way to get out of it.

Anybody who saw Asada blow away world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia at the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo two weeks ago, realizes that this is truly a lost opportunity for figure skating and the ISU.

It is not only the Olympics that will lose out, either, as the age-limit regulation will also prohibit Asada from skating at the world championships in Calgary next March.

Perhaps the unfortunate scenario involving Asada will provide the governing bodies of sport with a valuable lesson for the future — don’t legislate against the athletes.

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