BEIJING – Perhaps the most famous case of an underage gymnast – the current Olympic age minimum is 16 – occurred back at the 1991 world championships.
North Korea entered a girl who, while certainly capable of spins and flips, looked painfully slight and terribly young. Still, the documentation checked out and no one was truly sure until she happened to flash a big smile which revealed … she was still losing her baby teeth.
Bela Karolyi, the Vince Lombardi of women's gymnastics, tells that story just like he tells all of his stories about underage gymnasts – using mock humor to convey the disgust.
He's been railing about underage girls in gymnastics for decades. Now he fears the United States women's team is about to be victimized by them.
The Americans must compete against Chinese girls who, while "officially" being old enough, sure look awfully young. Consider 4-foot-6, 68-pound Deng Linlin. Or Jiang Yuyuan, who checks in at a strapping 4-7 and 70 pounds.
"They are using half-people," Karolyi told the Associated Press. "One of the biggest frustrations is, what arrogance. These people think we are stupid.
"We are in the business of gymnastics and we know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like. You don't have to be a gymnastics coach to know what they look like at 16."
A number of U.S. media investigations have shown that Deng is one of three Chinese team members who previously had ages listed on various documents that would make them as young as 14 during this calendar year.
However, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) merely requires a government issued passport as proof of age. China produced one for each member of the team.
"All passports are valid for all gymnasts competing in the Beijing Olympic Games," the FIG said in a statement. "Stringent control measures are taken at the time of athlete accreditation for all official FIG competitions. Further, all athlete ages for the Beijing Olympic Games are consistent with the FIG records for all past FIG competitions."
In Sunday's preliminaries, China took a lead over the U.S. in the team competition that concludes Wednesday morning in Beijing. Karolyi is convinced the Americans are being cheated. He wonders out loud if the Chinese packed diapers. He mocks passport accuracy since it is the Chinese government that issued it and says such forgery has been common around the globe for decades.
Besides, why not trust his lying eyes?
The Chinese look so young they may still watch "Dora the Explorer." The team's average height and weight on its listed roster is a mere 4-9 and 77 pounds.
By comparison, the smallest American gymnast is Shawn Johnson, a 16-year-old who checks in at 4-foot-9 and 90 pounds. The U.S. average is 5-foot and 107 pounds, which might qualify as obese by Chinese standards.
Maybe they are doping.
"What kind of slap in the face is this?" Karolyi asked. "They are 12, 14 years old, max. And they line them up for the world … and having the government back them?"
Younger and thus smaller gymnasts may have an advantage in a number of disciplines. Age limits were enacted by FIG for the safety of the athletes.
Karolyi is an NBC commentator and no longer has an official role with USA Gymnastics. However, his wife Marta is the team's coach and the athletes train at their Texas ranch.
He's been against age limits for years, preferring to let anyone of any age to compete. FIG says it has no plans to change its age limit, nor should it. Karolyi is wrong on this one; sending out little girls whose muscles and bones haven't fully developed is not the proper answer.
Asking for more than a meager passport – which, since the government issues it, is obviously quite easy to control – is a long overdue change. Not that anything would completely eliminate cheating.
No one knows for sure whether the Chinese are simply tiny or eviscerating the rules and putting their athletes in harm's way in pursuit of gold.
USA Gymnastics can't do much at this point. Officially, it has no statement and reminds that Bela Karolyi doesn't work for them. Marta Karolyi was pretty clear about what she thinks, though.
"We are ready to take on any team," she deadpanned. "Overage or underage."
Sniping is about all she can do. Unlike doping, there isn't a test to determine someone's age. It's not like cutting into a redwood tree and counting the rings.
Maybe they can ask Deng Linlin to smile wide for the cameras.
- Bela Karolyi