World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe has said he banned athletes under 20 from switching allegiances because of safeguarding concerns, leading Australian bosses to deny that tragic star Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya had been “traded”.

Coe tightened the rules last year to prevent federations from being able to “effectively shake hands behind closed doors” over deals enabling athletes to “suddenly end up competing for a completely different country.”

Two-time Olympic champion and president of the governing body Coe was troubled by what he saw as “very little guarantee on either side of the protocol”, becoming suspicious of moves that have frequently seen leading athletes make unlikely moves to wealthier countries.

“It’s not an easy thing for me to say but I was finding it quite hard to see a difference between what was emerging and human trafficking,” Coe told the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

“Some of them were barely older than anything that would in any country constitute adulthood and in some occasions barely at the age of consent.

“That’s when I looked at this and thought, ‘we also have a responsibility here in the safeguarding space.’”

Coe did not name any specific cases, although Reuters noted that Turkey’s team at the 2016 European Athletics Championships featured seven athletes from Kenya, two from Jamaica, an Ethiopian, a Cuban, a Ukrainian, a South African and an Azerbaijani.

Junior champion Alexandrovskaya was initially approached about the possibility of representing Australia as a 15-year-old in Moscow, joining Harley Windsor to become the first Australian champions in the 2017 Junior Grand Prix after her citizenship application was fast-tracked.

“We are aware that a number of nations do pick up athletes that you might describe as ‘trading’,” Australian Olympic Committee chief executive Matt Carroll told the Telegraph.

“But in this particular case, it wasn’t the case. This was two coaches looking for a skater to pair with Harley to succeed on the world stage.

“They prepared a girl who also wanted to succeed on the world stage.”

Carroll explained that the committee had played no role in arranging the deal to secure Alexandrovskaya’s switch, adding that no rules were broken as there are no age limits on the transfer of figure skaters.

Alexandrovskaya died in a suspected suicide in Moscow at the age of 20 in July after retiring in 2019 for health reasons.

“You don’t want to see any athlete, but certainly an athlete who’s come from the other side of the world, in any sort of destitute [situation],” said Carroll.

“Particularly one who has represented Australia at the heighest level.”

International Olympic Committee vice-president John Coates, who also chairs the committee’s legal affairs commission, said individual federations determined decisions about the age at which athletes could compete in Olympic sports.

“If the IOC was to suddenly mandate, across the board, what the minimum age should be for all sports, we would run into all sorts of trouble with the rights of athletes to monetize their performance and all those things,” he warned.

As well as the age limit starting at 20, athletes affected by the new rules will also be required to prove their ties to their new nation following a three-year waiting period.