at the races “When the wrong people are placed in positions of power, it’s the...

“When the wrong people are placed in positions of power, it’s the young people who suffer.”

Canadian Olympian Sarah Wells, 2019. (Photo by Peter Power for iRun Magazine)

The International Figure Skating Union has raised the age limit to compete at the Olympics. Athletics Canada should do the same.

Earlier this month, the International Figure Skating Union (ISU) voted in favour of a proposal to gradually increase the age limit for the women’s single event from 15 to 17 ahead of the 2026 Olympic Games. The ISU cited concerns for the mental and physical health of young athletes and the need to protect their emotional well-being as reasons for the increase. The ISU’s decision will undoubtedly spark conversations regarding the age limits for other Olympic sports, including track and field. 

At the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, track and field athletes 16 years of age and older were eligible for Olympic qualification, though higher age limits were enforced for certain events. Those under the age of 18 were not permitted to compete in throwing events, heptathlon and decathlon, while those under 20 were not eligible to compete in the marathon or 50km race walk. 

A few days following the ISU’s announcement, Canada’s Minister of Sport, Pascale St-Onge, announced that Canadian sport organizations have one year to meet new standards for governance, accountability and safer sports practices or risk losing government funding. This announcement comes after numerous allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse within various National Sport Organizations (NSOs) in recent years. The most notable of allegations within the Canadian running community were those of psychological and sexual abuse against former national team coach and head coach of the University of Guelph’s cross country and track and field program. When the wrong people are placed in positions of power, it is often young people who suffer the worst consequences. Children and youth are most at risk of abuse from coaches, because they are less likely to recognize inappropriate behaviour and speak out about such behaviour. Consequently, abusive coaches tend to target younger athletes, for instance grooming a young female runner for a sexual relationship when they are only in high school. Athletics Canada needs to do more to protect young athletes and increasing the age limit for Canadian track athletes to compete at the Olympics is one of the many steps the organization should take to meet the government’s new standards. Such a decision would allow younger athletes to increase their training volume and intensity more gradually, while also reducing the risk that young athletes will be subjected to harmful and abusive relationships with their coaches.

In distance running in particular, training at a high level presents a unique risk to adolescents, as their muscles and tissues are still developing. The changes in tissues that occur during puberty can alter running biomechanics and the increased risk of running related injuries. Improper biomechanics, high mileage and previously sustained injuries are all factors that increase the risk of injury in adolescent runners. Distance runners who aim to qualify for the Olympics between the age of 16 and 20 may be running hundreds of kilometres per week all while their bodies are growing. Though high mileage is often correlated with running faster times, it is not worth the risk of injury that it poses to young athletes. Unfortunately, compared to adults, little research has been conducted on the appropriate volume and intensity of training for adolescent runners. Most training programs that are in place for young runners are based on the opinions of coaches and health professionals not peer reviewed research. Therefore, even elite high school and university athletes who are training for the Olympics may not be prescribed a training program that is appropriate for their age or stage of mental and physical development. Perhaps much of this could be avoided if young athletes were permitted to develop at their own pace and were not subjected to such rigorous training during such an important time in their lives. 

By allowing young athletes to compete and train at the Olympic level at such a young age, clubs and coaches may be inadvertently limiting their potential later in life. For example, marathon runners tend to peak in their thirties, but if a young athlete suffers a career ending injury, they will never have the opportunity to compete in their thirties. A higher age limit for Olympic competition may help to prevent young athletes from suffering repeated overuse injuries, as there will be less pressure to train at an unsustainable volume or to continue training despite suffering an injury.

Amongst adolescents, the risk of running related injury is higher in females. Running injuries in young females, particularly bone stress injuries, are also associated with menstrual irregularities and low bone mineral density, both of which are signs of REDS or Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport. REDS is a condition that occurs when an athlete’s energy expenditure due to exercise exceeds their energy consumption. Therefore, a third commonality amongst those who suffer from REDS is an eating disorder. Sadly, many young runners, especially young girls, suffer from eating disorders. As a result of inappropriate messaging in the media and from coaches and parents, the idea that lighter equals faster continues to be instilled in young girls. Left unaddressed, this may lead to an eating disorder, overuse injuries, REDS and in many cases forces young girls to leave the sport. According to a 2020 study, 1 in 3 girls who once participated in sport leave in their teen years. Young girls who leave sport cite low self-confidence and poor body image as reasons why they chose to leave.

Not only does this limit the level of competition in female sports, but it can be detrimental to women’s long-term health. Running helps to improve cardiovascular fitness, thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes later in life. 

National Sports Organizations like Athletics Canada need to do more to encourage young girls to stay involved in sports and in order to do so, they must help create an environment in which young girls feel welcomed and supported. By increasing the age limit to compete at the Olympics, high school and club coaches can focus on creating a more supportive environment for female athletes. If gradual development and body positivity are prioritized over short-term success, perhaps fewer female athletes will be forced to leave the sport before they reach their full potential.

A decision from Athletics Canada to increase the age limit from 16 to 18—eliminating Canadian youth from Olympic competition—would encourage the long-term development and protection of young athletes. Furthermore, such a decision would recognize that the main goal of youth running is not for athletes to reach an elite level of competition, but to adopt a lifestyle of physical activity and community involvement that will continue into adulthood. Protecting young athletes from overtraining, injury, eating disorders and abusive coach-athlete relationships needs to be Athletics Canada’s top priority. Young athletes are the future of our sport, but far too many are forced to leave the sport because they are not provided with the support they need. An athlete’s current performance and future potential should be equally valued. 

By taking Canadian youth out of Olympic track and field competition, Athletics Canada would help reshape the environment of youth track and field in Canada from one of excessive expectations and short-term goals to one of support and understanding.