IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

No reason to tarnish China's gold in gymnastics

Boswell: It's sad sports world has come to this — wondering about passports of children
Image: He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan
He Kexin, left, and Jiang Yuyuan helped China win gold in the women's gymnastics team competition Wednesday.Mike Blake / Reuters

Women's gymnastics at the Olympics always lifts or breaks your heart. On Wednesday, it did both. Few athletes in the world can make you catch your breath in disbelief or define the line of human beauty more powerfully than Americans Shawn Johnson on the balance beam or Nastia Liukin on the uneven bars, or Chinese captain Cheng Fei on the vault.

But if it's tears you want, the kind you feel inside when you see a small girl in glittery makeup trying to pretend she's 16 — and eligible for the Olympics — when she may only be 14, then National Indoor Stadium was the place to come for that emotion, too.

Wednesday, in , He Kexin said defiantly: "My real age is 16. I don't care what other people say. That's none of my business. I want people to know that 16 is my real age."

So tell us, a reporter asked coyly, what did you do to celebrate your 15th birthday? It must have been so memorable. "I was with my team. It was an ordinary day. We just celebrate with our teammates," He said, levelly.

Next to He, accepting praise, was Jiang Yuyuan, an amazing uneven-bar performer. Both looked extremely young despite thick makeup, sparkles and fairly sophisticated hairstyles. Their passports, issued by China, say they were born in 1992 — just in time to be eligible. But records posted on official Web sites in China, which were dug up by Western journalists, said that both girls are just 14. (The Web sites, and parts of an online message board discussing the age issue, were taken down shortly after the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on them last month.)

If their passports are right, then a world of praise is being denied this duo. Bela Karolyi, former Olympic coach and publicity hound, harangues them on TV, insisting they are underage. His wife Martha, the U.S. team coordinator, says sly things, trying to throw them under her gag-in-the-clutch American bus.

"I have no proof. So much talk. Could be because one little girl has a missing tooth," said Martha, hinting at a lost baby tooth. "If it's true, it's totally unfair. Certain countries go by rules and certain countries may not."

This Chinese duo is typical of a sports world in which a baseball slugger's steroids have blended into a cyclist's EPO and a sprinter's human growth hormone until it makes us wonder about the passports of children.

Yet the bitterest tears of all belong to an undeserving victim — U.S. gymnastics team captain Alicia Sacramone, who bombed on the last two events Wednesday, falling off the balance beam, then tumbling on her rump in floor exercise, a discipline in which she was world champion in 2005. Her scores demolished the United States' slim chances for a comeback.

Sacramone has lots of disadvantages. She's 20, grown, smart, goes to Brown and is old enough to know what's at stake. All are nightmares to a gymnast. Better to be young, limber, oblivious and fearless.

As Sacramone sat, slightly separate from her teammates, watching the elfin Chinese suspects fly around the uneven bars, running up astronomical scores to give China a substantial 1.125-point lead, she fiddled with her nails and fidgeted.

As eldest and captain, she led off both of the final two rotations — beam and floor. But time dragged as she waited. Martha Karolyi claimed there was Chinese gamesmanship, somebody dawdling with the clock. Whatever the cause, Sacramone needed only one awful second -- the first instant of her program — for disaster. Her flip onto the beam was awkward. She tottered on one foot and fell off — an automatic .800-point deduction.

What followed was an agony to watch, the worst image in sport — an elite athlete bent to the breaking point on her biggest stage. Her face ashen, Sacramone finished a numb performance, her score 15.100.

"When Alicia began this sport, she was a very emotional athlete. But over time she has become consistent. But she had to wait before the beam and it looks like she flew back to her original state," Martha Karolyi said. "She was very upset going over to the floor. Alicia couldn't get over it. We always say, 'Turn the page.' But sometimes it is hard to turn the page.

"Just two days ago, she had a stunning beam — 15.950. If she did that again . . . " Karolyi shrugged.

China won the gold by 2.375 points, normally a rear-end-kicking margin. But Karolyi implied (nice of her) that Sacramone might have squandered .825 of a point on beam.

Not that Sacramone missed the point. After pressing her forehead against Karolyi's, she was determined to atone in her floor exercise. Instead, she went from bad to horrid. First, she fell after a difficult flip and tumble. Then she stepped out of bounds. Finally, she got a 14.125, the lowest score by .975 of any Chinese or U.S. gymnast in any discipline in the finals. She and her team were toast.

As she left the mat, the two-year battle between the United States and China — with each winning a world title by a tiny fraction of a point — was as good as decided.

Sacramone fled her teammates, buried her head in her hand and began to cry. For the next 20 minutes, she fought back tears, sometimes failing. After the verdict was final, Johnson sat next to Sacramone, looped her arm through the older girl's, then laid her head on Sacramore's shoulder in an instant of consolation.

Such talent and grace, such sadness and sympathy, such ethical complexity, all tangled up together. In the end, it may be too much to digest. Who's juicing, who's not? Whose age is fake or real? Which judges are biased or wise? Forget it, Jake, it's the Olympics.

Only Johnson, who did well in all four events and is favored in Friday's all-around, saw the day in focus, got it exactly right with a kid's clarity. Sometimes complexity's a bore. Hold tight to the strong and solid -- what there is of it.

"I honestly think our team did great today," she said, smiling at a packed news conference. "We are proud of each other no matter what we do. We are like a family. We respect China. We will wear our silver medals proudly."

Johnson is 16. Really. Though she'll have a hard time growing wiser.