Chinese Gymnast Age Dispute

MaxPower August 22nd, 2008

It hasn’t been a secret that some of the Chinese women competitors at the Beijing Olympics look to be so small and young as to be under the age of 16 required to compete in some events. Any viewer on TV or the internet can tell that some of these girls look so tiny as to be unbelievable. Let’s just say a couple of the Chinese competitors have apparently stretched “credibility”.

The Chinese woman above, He Kexin, is claimed by the Chinese to be 16 and won two gold medals, however various media reports have said she is actually 13 or 14. 16 is the minimum age of competing in gymnastics, partially due to the natural advantaged conveyed to “smaller frames” in most of the events. Different countries and races have differing body types, no one would be surprised to see more smaller frames on Chinese woman then for example, Swedish women or South Africans or whatever. Perhaps because of this, the uproar around a potentially underage competitor has been slow to build. The gymnastics component of the Olympics has been complete for a while now, but today I see this from the International Gymnastic Federation:

Beijing (CHN) BTG FIG Office, August 22, 1008: The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) is seeking to clarify the claims made in the media regarding the age of Chinese female gymnasts He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, Li Shanshan, Deng Linlin and Yang Yilin.

The FIG provided documentary evidence, including copies of the athletes’ passports, when questions were raised in online media earlier this year.

In recent days, additional questions have resurfaced, and in the interests of laying the matter to rest and in response to a request from the International Olympic Committee, the FIG has now asked the Chinese Gymnastic Association to submit further documents testifying to the birthdates of the gymnasts.

On receipt of these documents, the FIG will forward its conclusions to the International Olympic Committee.

I don’t blame the FIG here, I’m sure they check the ages of the competitors. He Kexin’s birthdate on her passport is January 1, 1992. However, the FIG is relying on the Chinese government’s document. What extra information are they going to get? A birth certificate, sworn affidavit from her Grade 1 teacher or the doctor who delivered her? They already talked to her parents who are “indignant”. Realistically, the Chinese could easily fake all of those documents. In actual fact, the documents wouldn’t be fake at all. If the Chinese government said He Kexin’s birthday is now 1992 vs. 1994 and issued a passport as such, doesn’t that make it ‘authentic’? Let’s not be naive here. If the Chinese athletes are below the age required to compete this was not a rogue coach’s idea, the idea came from the upper echelons of the Chinese government for whom this Olympics is incredibly important international event. If a government issued passport is not a fake but is incorrect, you no longer have an issue of Olympic doping which tarnishes a country’s reputation (Ben Johnson still gets mentioned more than all the US athletes who got nailed doping), but a vivid illustration of how far the Chinese would go to save face (by winning lots and lots of Gold medals). That being said, it isn’t “illegal” or anything for a country to issue a knowingly false passport, it is done all the time in cases of international espionage or witness protection. It is however, against the “spirit” of the Olympics.

I think this should be pursued and brought to its full conclusion. Not because I think having a 14 yr old competing in Olympic women’s gymnastics is illegal or against the spirit of sport but because those were the rules of the games. I already feel slightly ripped off when I watched 26 yr old Emilie Heymans win silver for Canada, in between two Chinese women, one of whom was 15 (but turns 16 before the deadline) and the other was 16 but who is 4 foot 6, weighed 60 pounds and whose claim to fame is that she “skipped dinner for a year”.

Doping is one thing, adults above the age of consent should be allowed to take whatever drugs (which are legal, like most were) they want to improve their performance. Whether those athletes are then allowed in the Olympics is an open question. However, athletes below the age 14 or 16 or whatever who are pressured into skipping evening meals and not weighing more than 60 pounds is off putting. I’m trying not to get righteous here but this does kind of piss me off.

  • TDJ

    I was shocked when I saw that girl diving. The commentators said she weighed 27 kg, which just blew me away, then to find out she doesn’t eat an evening meal is not cool. She’d have to be under pressure (as stated in the article) from her coach, she couldn’t choose to do that without having some eating disorder.

  • @TDJ

    I agree.. Awful.

  • you can probably imagine, then, how pissed off i am living here in beijing where that kind of “save face” behaviour is a daily obstacle to my productivity, education, and enjoyment of life.

  • Julie

    I campared the weight and height of Chinese and Japan gymnastic team, actually I didn’t see a big difference between them at all. The Americans talk about this only because they were loser in the game. Why you have to prove that you were kicked ass by some 14-years-old rather than 16?

  • Thanks for the comment Julie.

    After you said that I too went to the official olympic webpage and checked out China vs. Japan.

    The Chinese women’s gymnastics team averaged 1.44 meters tall or 4 foot 7. Average weight was 77 lbs. The Japanese women’s gymnastics team averaged 1.47 meters or 4 foot 8. Average weight was 82 lbs.

    The Japanese women averaged 6.5% heavier than the Chinese. The absolute amount is not really important (beyond the potential for all of these girls to have eating disorders, which again wasn’t really the point of the article), and while you seem to think I’m American, which I am not, I will refer you back to my comment on why I felt the need to write about this:

    “I think this should be pursued and brought to its full conclusion. Not because I think having a 14 yr old competing in Olympic women’s gymnastics is illegal or against the spirit of sport but because those were the rules of the games.”

    So, if in fact the Chinese women were under the age of 16, which based on the most recent info I have seen seems extremely probable (more so than this “paper work error”) then what I have a problem with is state-sponsored cheating.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/sports/olympics/25games.html?ref=sports

    “He, who is listed as 16 at these Olympics, has also been listed as having a birth date of Jan. 1, 1994, on several online registries in China, including national registries compiled by the state sports bureau. He’s birth date was also Jan. 1, 1994, on the registration list for a 2006 intercity competition in Chengdu, China.”

  • Crom

    Also, we’re Canadians…we didn’t get our asses kicked by 14 year olds.

    We got our asses kicked by everybody.

  • The Olympic Games are increasingly looking like a matter of smoke and mirrors. Gymnasts’ ages are just part of the picture. The other side is even worse, and it’s called doping

  • Pat

    Underage gymnasts? Maybe not…

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