At the 2018 Olympic Games, one sport enjoying quite a bit of viewership and general public attention has been full of flips and jumps and spins. Of course, that would be figure skating. The competition will be as tough as ever this year, and one perennial reason for that is the short amount of time, relatively speaking, that most participants have to compete within their lifetime. Known for primarily featuring sub-30-year-old athletes, how old figure skaters have to be to compete is not very old at all.
According to a memo authored by the International Skating Union (ISU), figure skating Olympians at this year's Winter Games must be at least 15 years old. Specifically, they must have turned 15 years old by July 1, 2017 in order to have been eligible for the 2018 Games. (The ISU, for reference, is the international federation that administers ice skating sports.)
The sport has a heavy emphasis on agile frames, which likely has a lot to do with why the majority of figure skaters are so young. Younger athletes are naturally more inclined to have faster metabolisms and more flexible muscles and joints.
That said, however, it's worth noting that figure skating star Adam Rippon, a 2018 U.S. figure skating fan favorite, is 28 years old. He is the oldest rookie figure skater to head to the Winter Games since 1939, and on Sunday night, he came in second place in the men's free skate competition. That means that while there certainly is a lot of focus on youth within the world of competitive skating, it definitely isn't a determining factor in performance.
Rippon's age means that there is a decade between he and some of his competitors — even between he and some of his teammates. Vincent Zhou, for example, was born in October of 2000, making the American figure skater only 17 years old. While that's not an entire generation, that's still a significant gap between he and Rippon.
Zhou, however, isn't the youngest to compete in the 2018 Winter Games. One Olympian did just make the age requirement, and she will be suiting up with the rest of the competition. Her name is Alina Zagitova, and she is a 15-year-old Russian figure skater competing as an Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR). She is expected to perform exceptionally well at PyeongChang, and is considered a contender for a gold medal. Interestingly, many are pitting her against her teammate, Evgenia Medvedeva (who is 18 years old, for the record).
Because figure skating is such an inherently young sport, most professional skaters begin learning the tricks of the trade at a very young age. It isn't uncommon to learn that Olympian skaters first stepped on the ice just after learning how to walk — often at about three years old. And from there generally comes years and years of professional lessons, and with that, a litany of competitions.
Figure skating, if it isn't obvious from watching it, requires a ton of balance and coordination. A lot of the skills required are more manageable when adopted at a very young age. While it isn't impossible to pick up figure skating as a teenager or young adult, it's largely accepted that the chances of being a major Olympic contender when one hasn't been on the ice for their entire life are slim to none.
As such, much like any other extremely demanding sport, there are a litany of stories about the stress of the competition weighing down too heavily on its participants. Figure skating takes an incredible amount of work, and commands so much of skaters' time and energy, that it's fair to say, young or not, competing as a skater in the Olympics is truly a lifetime accomplishment.