The Chinese Gymnasts: Age Questions Remain

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Al Tielemans / Sports Illustrated

The Chinese women's gymnastics team wave to the crowd after winning the gold on Aug. 13

They twirled and tumbled and soared, their lean, lithe bodies slicing the air like tiny blades. In the end, China's women's gymnastics team prevailed in the team final, capturing the gold, with the Americans taking silver and the Romanians rounding it out with a bronze. But even as the Chinese team's doll-like faces broke out into giant smiles, a question mark hung over the mats at the National Indoor Stadium. Last month, when China finally named its Olympic squad, legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi complained that some of China's gymnasts were "obviously kids... and you're telling the world they are 16? What arrogance!" Were three of the six Chinese women on the stand actually too young to be competing?

Under Olympic regulations, female gymnasts must turn 16 years old during the year of competition. According to their passports, which determine Olympic eligibility, He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin are all 16. But Chinese online records and local newspaper articles have presented different information, raising questions about these three gynmasts' true ages. A 2006 biography from the local sports bureau where He was registered gave her date of birth as January 1, 1994, which would make her 14. A story earlier this year in the China Daily, the country's largest English-language newspaper, also reported that she is 14 years old. Another local-level competition roll had the date of birth of Jiang, who is only 32 kg (70.5 lbs.), as October 1, 1993, making her also 14. And from 2004-2006, the biographical data for Yang on the State General Administration of Sport's website listed her date of birth as August 26, 1993, one year later than what Beijing Olympic records show. Responding to a New York Times article that reported on questions about He and Jiang's ages, Zhang Hongliang, a Chinese gymnastics official, suggested that perhaps local sports authorities had listed their ages incorrectly, but insisted that their passports were fault-free. "I'm sure the information is correct," Zhang said. Officials from the International Gymnastics Federation said they would accept the passport information, until convincing evidence to the contrary is presented.

Age-fixing in Chinese sport has been in the news before. In sports where limber, prepubescent bodies can outmaneuver more mature athletes, kids can be designated as older than they are. Yang Yun, a Chinese gymnast who was listed as 16 when she won double bronzes at Sydney, later went on Chinese television and said she had been 14 when she competed.

Within China's domestic sports scene there has been age-fixing as well. Young athletes can be designated as younger than they are so they can dominate in age-based competitions, as was the case with Chinese basketball star Wang Zhizhi, whose age was listed in inter-club competitions as two years younger than he actually was.

Earlier this year, a 14-year-old table-tennis prodigy in eastern Shandong province told me quite cheerfully that she competes as an 11-year-old in provincial and regional age-ranked competitions. Her national identity card, she said, had been changed to reflect the false birth-date. "It's no big deal," she insisted. "Most of my friends do it, too." Her coach, who hadn't been present when I interviewed the girl, denied any age-fixing at the school, although he said he was quite sure it happened at other academies.

China isn't the only nation, of course, where athletes' ages have come under scrutiny. In the 2001 baseball Little League World Series, a pitcher named Danny Almonte threw a perfect game, earning his Bronx, New York, team a bronze. But the 12-year-old phenom turned out to be two years older, making him ineligible for Little League play. The team's third-place finish was revoked.

Karolyi, whose wife helps coach the American team, believes the only way to remove doubts completely is to get rid of the age minimum in gymnastics, originally designed to protect athletes. There's little question that if the age minimum were dropped, countries like the U.S. could field their younger — and often smaller and more fearless — gymnasts. Nastia Liukin, who scored a spectacular 16.9 for the U.S. on the uneven bars during the Aug. 13 team finals, was unable to compete four years ago in Athens because she was too young.

As gymnastics officials have cautioned, there's no proof that any of the Chinese who won a team gold are underage. The U.S. team, which came into the Olympics as the reigning world champions, made plenty of mistakes in the finals. But if it turns out that America's gymnasts — nearly 9 cm (3.5 inches) taller and around 13.5 kg (30 lbs.) heavier than their Chinese rivals, on average — were competing against underage athletes, then China's gold may quickly lose its luster.