Wednesday March 19th, 2008

The world figure skating championships are underway in Sweden, but the top American woman, who is, in fact, not a woman, but a little girl, will not be there.

That American champion is Mirai Nagasu, who is 4-foot-11 and, if you can believe this, all of 78 pounds. Miss Nagasu is also a mere 14 years old, which is too young to qualify her for the worlds.

What sense does it make to ban her? After all, she proved in legitimate competition to be the best figure skater we have, so what does her age matter? Besides, like it or not, she's part of the trend in American sport for athletes to be more accomplished at a younger age, as more attention is devoted to children's competition.

Kids are better than ever at sport. To start with, they mature physically earlier. They have more sophisticated coaching, and, because they can study the best players on television, they're able to quickly learn and copy advanced skills. Abetted by adults, who seldom have the children's best interests at heart, they are encouraged to dedicate their young lives to sport -- often to the general exclusion of school and a normal childhood. Many of our best young athletes are like throwbacks to medieval guilds, learning a trade in childhood.

The national sporting press has encouraged the added weight of high school sports by giving them a national stage. Seizing on our mania for polls, USA Today led the way when it started publishing the national rankings of high school teams. The likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated soon followed, and even McDonalds took stock, choosing All-America teams and making national celebrities of kids.

Listen, we have always had a passion for high school sports. It's no different than why we Americans alone emphasize college sports. Athletics gives glamour and identity to the college or town's school.

But what has changed is that it's a national show now. Isn't it enough for a team to win the county championship, a kid to make all-city? Not any more. Now, school teams travel the land, modern day vaudevillians, playing one-night stands hundreds, even thousands of miles away from home. There are all sorts of national postseason all-star games, even high school football bowl games. National signing day for high school senior football players has taken on all the trappings of NFL draft day.

Not everybody is happy with this development. Women's figure skating, which was once the most popular female sport on TV, has plummeted in the ratings, as the tiny teens have taken over the sport, jumping about the ice, but unable to display the grown-up grace and elegance once featured by Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill or Kristi Yamaguchi. And from a more substantive point of view, at a time when educators are struggling to keep American boys in school and to interest them in college -- where young women now predominate -- the increased glorification of school sport is surely counter-productive to education for boys.

The irony is that for so long many Americans have decried the emphasis on college sport. And instead of that notion being remedied, the very sins of college athletics are now being passed down to high school.

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