Video: Chinese gymnasts underage?

msnbc.com news services
updated 8/22/2008 5:24:24 AM ET 2008-08-22T09:24:24

The parents of the Chinese gymnasts are indignant, the International Olympic Committee sounds satisfied and the Beijing Games are almost over. Yet questions persist about the ages of China’s gold-medal women’s gymnastics team.

Are they 14? Are they 16?

Hoping to put a definitive end to a simmering controversy, China was asked to provide additional documents that prove five of the six team members were old enough to compete at these games. The request, by the International Gymnastics Federation, was made at the urging of the IOC, despite China’s insistence that its athletes were not underage and the fact that there is no irrefutable proof to the contrary.

Still, the questions haven’t abated, and so the Chinese federation was asked one more time to prove the girls were eligible.

“It’s not a question of a final decision,” IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. “We simply want the federation to work with the national federation ... to just put to bed once and for all the questions.”

The FIG asked China for documents on He Kexin, Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin and Li Shanshan, and said Saturday that it had received passports, ID cards and family residence permits and would begin analyzing them. The federation’s executive committee also met Saturday to discuss the issue.

“This process may take some time, but in due course, the FIG will make a full report of our findings to the International Olympic Committee,” the organization said in a statement.

No deadline has been set, but with the games ending Sunday, the IOC wants to dispel any lingering doubts as quickly as possible.

Questions about the Chinese women have been swirling for months, with media reports and online records suggesting that He, Yang and Jiang might be as young as 14. Gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible.

Four of China’s six medals could be affected if evidence of cheating is found. In addition to the team gold, He won the gold medal on uneven bars and Yang won bronzes on bars and the all-around.

“It is in the interests of all concerned, not least the athletes themselves, to resolve this issue once and for all,” the FIG said in a statement.

That’s all anyone wants, said Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which sent a letter to the IOC and FIG asking that they take one last look.

Slideshow: Day 14's emotional moments “We certainly believe that it’s important for the IOC and the international federation to review the issue and hopefully lay it to rest because the questions surrounding the age of some of the athletes have been out there for quite a while and it’s unfair to them and unfair to the other athletes to continue to linger,” Scherr said.

No one would be happier to finally have closure on the controversy than the gymnasts’ parents.

China coach Lu Shanzhen said the parents are “indignant” over persistent questions about their daughters’ ages.

“It’s not just me. The parents of our athletes are all very indignant,” Lu said. “They have faced groundless suspicion. Why aren’t they believed? Why are their children suspected? Their parents are very angry.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lu said Asian gymnasts are naturally smaller than their American and European rivals.

“At this competition, the Japanese gymnasts were just as small as the Chinese,” he said. “Chinese competitors have for years all been small. It is not just this time. It is a question of race. European and American athletes are all powerful, very robust. But Chinese athletes cannot be like that. They are by nature that small.”

Lu said the governing body of gymnastics has already been given some of the requested documents, turning over He’s current and former passport, ID card and family residence permit Thursday. Lu said the documents all say she was born in 1992, which would have made her eligible to compete.

“Surely it’s not possible that these documents are still not sufficient proof of her birthdate?” Lu asked. “The passports were issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The identity card was issued by China’s Ministry of Public Security. If these valid documents are not enough to clarify this problem, then what will you believe?”

Earlier this month, the AP found registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China that showed both He and Yang were too young to compete. He was born Jan. 1, 1994, according to the 2005, 2006 and 2007 registration lists. Yang was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists. In the 2007 registration list, however, her birthday has changed to Aug. 26, 1992.

“If you trust every Web site but not a government...,” Lu said. “There are so many Web sites, so much hearsay. These are not official. Is it possible that all news on the Internet is accurate?”

The FIG and IOC thought they had addressed the issue at the start of the games. The FIG said a passport is the “accepted proof of a gymnast’s eligibility,” and that China’s gymnasts presented ones that show they are age eligible. The IOC also checked the girls’ passports and deemed them valid before the games.

Slideshow: Day 14's emotional moments But the controversy never quite went away, with He being asked about her age as recently as Monday, after she won the bars gold. Neither the IOC or FIG would say why the IOC asked gymnastics officials to investigate “what have been a number of questions and apparent discrepancies” now, three days after the gymnastics competition ended.

“With some questions still remaining, we asked the federation to take a closer look,” Davies said.

The IOC, however, sounded as if it did not expect anything to be found.

“We believe the matter will be put to rest and there’s no question ... on the eligibility,” Davies said. “The information we have received seems satisfactory in terms of the correct documentation — including birth certificates.”

Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s after the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 to protect young athletes from serious injuries. The minimum age was raised to its current 16 in 1997. Younger gymnasts are considered to have an advantage because they are more flexible and are likely to have an easier time doing the tough skills the sport requires. They also aren’t as likely to have a history of injuries or fear of failure.

North Korea was barred from the 1993 world championships after FIG officials discovered Kim Gwang Suk, the gold medalist on uneven bars in 1991, was listed as 15 for three years in a row. Romania admitted in 2002 that several gymnasts’ ages had been falsified, including Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu.

Even China’s own Yang Yun, a double bronze medalist in Sydney, said during an interview aired on state broadcaster China Central Television that she was 14 during the 2000 Games.

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