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Because of age, skater Mao Asada will be missed at 2006 Olympics

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CHICAGO - Figure skating's grand poohbahs have only themselves to blame for the growing feeling that an asterisked explanation will be needed for the results of the women's singles at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

What will it say?

(ASTERISK) - Medalists profited from the inexplicable absence of Japan's Mao Asada, the leading women's skater in the world this season.

The nonsensical and hypocritical International Skating Union rules that say Asada is old enough to compete on the senior Grand Prix circuit but too young for the Olympics will strip significance from the sport's premier competition.

The Mao factor, clearly also a needed wow factor in a sport with declining TV ratings, became ever more meaningful during the weekend when the 15-year-old Asada beat reigning world champion Irina Slutskaya of Russia to win the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo. A month earlier, Asada had beaten reigning world silver medalist Sasha Cohen of the U.S. at the Grand Prix competition in Paris.

In the three seasons since the ISU has used its new judging system, only Slutskaya and Cohen have topped Asada's winning score from the Grand Prix Final. Cohen has not beaten that score since 2003.

"It is a shame Mao can't go to the Olympics," said Cohen's coach, John A.W. Nicks. "Nobody can forecast how well she would do, but her absence will be a talking point, even if I don't see an asterisk because of it."

The Olympics, of course, is when more than hard-core figure skating fans talk about the sport. But the missing Mao surely will be noted.

"Mao has shown twice this season that she could definitely be a contender for Olympic gold," ESPN commentator Peter Carruthers, 1984 Olympic pairs silver medalist, said Sunday from Japan. "Her not being there won't take away from the event so much as her being there would enhance it. Imagine the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal without 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci."

ISU rules allow figure skaters to compete in senior events other than the Olympics and world championships if they are 14 by July 1 preceding the competition. For the Olympics and worlds, the skater must be 15 by July 1 preceding the competition. Asada missed the latter criterion by 87 days, turning 15 on Sept. 25.

ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta said again Saturday that no exception could be made for Asada, which is logical and pragmatic. Changing rules at this late date so Asada can skate in the 2006 Turin Games would bring howls of protest from the Russian Figure Skating Federation and perhaps the U.S. federation as well.

The illogic stems from having two different age minimums.

"This is a rule based on medical aspects and not a technical one," Cinquanta said.

The idea behind that statement is laudable. Rushing young skaters to senior championship competition, with its multiple triple jumps, is dangerous at ages when growth plates have not fused. Young bodies are subject to even more pressure under the new judging system, which rewards programs jammed with technical demands and jumps late in the program.

Yet skaters already are doing the same demanding technical elements, especially jumps, to compete on the senior Grand Prix level and, in many cases, to compete at the junior level. This is especially true of prepubescent girls, whose hipless, small-chested bodies often have the perfect strength-weight ratio to pull off jump after jump.

The risk of long-term physical damage from such repetitive pounding is well documented. Less evident is how that can be compounded physically and mentally when skaters face the frustration of trying to keep doing those jumps with the changed center of gravity and proportions of a woman's body.

If the ISU really were concerned about skaters' health, it would severely limit the number of triple jumps women (and, to a lesser extent, men) can do in competition, especially before they reach the senior level.

Asada did 11 jumps-six triples, including the difficult triple axel, and five doubles, four in combinations after triples-in her free skate at the Grand Prix Final. To get extra credit, she did seven of the jumps in the second half of the four-minute program, when fatigue makes the body more susceptible to injury.

It is plainly absurd to say Asada is old enough to do that in December but not in February, especially because she has followed rules that compel a skater to attain technical levels at 15, especially as a jumper, she may never have again.

"Mao has a great ability to focus and, at least so far, not fall victim to the pressures that bring down the best in ladies' figure skating," Carruthers said. "She simply performs without the mental baggage a lot of more mature athletes have."

The 2006 Winter Olympics might have been Mao's moment, just as the 2002 Olympics were for Sarah Hughes, 16, and the 1998 Winter Olympics for Tara Lipinski, 15, the youngest women's gold medalist ever. Lipinski, who beat heavily favored Michelle Kwan, and Hughes, fourth going into the free skate, skated with the freedom of having nothing to lose.

Olympic champion and longtime coach Carol Heiss Jenkins, who predicted Lipinski's upset win in 1998, was at the Grand Prix Final. She does not think Asada is Lipinski's equal at the same age.

"Mao is an awesome talent and an awesome jumper, no doubt about it, but there is not the same maturity Tara had," Heiss Jenkins said Sunday. "Tara was able to hold movements, and there was a feeling you would get with Tara that I don't have yet with Mao."

Carruthers disagrees.

"I see the same spirit in Mao I saw in Tara and Sarah," he said. "She can light up a place. There is no guarantee she will have that opportunity again in four years."

And the sports world may never know what it missed.


(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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