It would be one for the ages, if all ages were there, that is

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Olympic gold medal in women's figure skating won't shine quite as brightly this year in Turin.

Sure, the classy Irina Slutskaya deserves to feel the ribbon around her neck as she stands on top of the podium next month. And maybe the always-a-bridesmaid Sasha Cohen will add another silver to her collection.

But the most-watched event at the Winter Games won't have the world's hottest figure skater on the ice. Without Mao Asada, the competition will have all the punch of a 40-watt bulb in Yankee Stadium.

What a shame.

Granted, Asada is not a household name. But figure skating junkies know that the 5-foot-2, 82-pound Japanese girl just completed a Babe Ruth season.

Last March at the world junior championships, Asada blew away the competition - including Harford County's Kimmie Meissner, Alissa Czisny and Emily Hughes, sister of 2002 gold medalist Sarah Hughes - by landing eight triple jumps in her fearless and flawless free skate.

Then she took on her elders, finishing second to Slutskaya in the Grand Prix in China and winning the next round in Paris (over Cohen) by landing the sacred triple Axel. Last month, she easily beat Slutskaya to win the Grand Prix Final, and then finished the year at the Japanese national championships, where she became the first female skater to do two triple Axels in a long program.

Wouldn't Michelle Kwan like to have those stats for the back of her 2005 trading card?

It's obvious Asada has the skills and savvy to compete on the world stage against the world's best at the Olympics. But the International Skating Union will keep the every-fourth-year viewing world from seeing her until 2010.

The ISU limits Olympic appearances to figure skaters who have turned 15 years old by June 30 of the year before a Winter Olympics. Asada missed the deadline by 87 days.

The age minimum was established in 1996 by skating officials concerned about exploitation and health risks involving young athletes - the "Little Girls in Pretty Boxes" ugliness exposed in Joan Ryan's book of the same name. The restriction also applies to the world senior championships, which held Meissner back from the 2005 event.

Other Olympic sports have minimum ages. Speed skating mirrors figure skating, boxing is 17 and gymnastics is 16.

Trying to protect young athletes is commendable. But if that's the case, why doesn't the skating federation ban triple jumps until a certain age or competition level? And if competing against the big girls is so awful, why do the same international officials allow the Asadas and Meissners to participate in Grand Prix events?

Had the age minimum been set just a few years earlier, we would not have had the opportunity to watch the magic of Kwan, who went to her first worlds at 13, finished fourth at 14, and was the world and U.S. champion at 15.

Although Japanese fans have begged the Japan Skating Federation to ask the ISU for a waiver, officials say they will not.

"There are skaters we have helped build up for Turin in the past four years. Whatever the public might say, we will not change our stand," Noriko Shirota told reporters.

Not that the request would have gotten very far. ISU president Ottavio Cinquanta, who watched Asada's Grand Prix Final performance, was unmoved.

"Regardless of the fact that Mao Asada can perform the highest level of element, the decision of the congress was made on medical reasons and not technical ones," Cinquanta told reporters, before adding that as a regular guy, he'd love to see her on the ice in Turin on Feb. 21.

The Olympic charter states: "The goal of the Olympic movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind."

But the International Olympic Committee allows Olympic sports federations to commit age discrimination indiscriminately. Heck, boxing even has a maximum age of 34.

Good thing for Robyn Perry that they didn't set an age minimum for the lighters of the Olympic cauldron (Why not? A person could get burned or slip on the steps or get hit in the head by a flying dove of peace). Perry, 12, fired up the big barbecue pit at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, becoming the youngest to do the honors.

"Citius. Altius. Fortius," says the Olympic motto. "Faster. Higher. Stronger."

Just not younger, please.

Asada has managed to skate around the age controversy, but admitted, "I feel a little bit like competing in Turin."

And we feel a little bit like watching, Mao.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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