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The Olympics' age-old problem

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

BEIJING – For a long time, elements of the Chinese government itself thought women's gymnast He Kexin was born Jan. 1, 1994, which would make her 14 and too young to compete in these Summer Olympics.

Whether it was repeated mentions in the government-controlled media – including a new one uncovered Friday by the Associated Press – or on official gymnastic meet registration forms and websites, He was “this little girl” and a “new star.”

As recently as December 2007, in provincial gymnastics meets and news reports that covered it, she was a 13-year-old prodigy, too young for the 16-year-old Olympic age limit for gymnastics.

Then, suddenly, she wasn't.

Earlier this year China produced her passport that claimed she was born Jan. 1, 1992, making her old enough to perform a brilliant uneven bar routine and push China to the women's all around gold medal.

The Chinese either got it wrong in 2007 or wrong in 2008. Considering 2000 Chinese bronze medalist Yang Yun later admitted on state television she was 14 that year, the reported ages of He Kexin and at least two of her teammates have aroused suspicion in nearly everyone except the powers that be – the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Both organizations accepted the new passport as fact, certified He and tried to cover their collective ears at all the complaints. Wednesday, the IOC even slipped a gold medal around He Kexin's neck.

If the IOC had a modicum of decency and courage (don't count on it), it would open an immediate investigation into whether it might take that medal right back.

If not for the of-age gymnasts who lost to the Chinese, then for He and her diminutive teammates, who – if they actually are old enough – don't deserve suspicion tainting their accomplishment.

While the IOC undoubtedly is petrified of humiliating the host country in such a scandal, doing nothing merely humiliates the IOC and continues the belief that the organization is about money, not fair play.

For its part, the Chinese gymnastics delegation told the AP that the mistake was made by the media and provincial officials, not on the passport. Everything is on the up and up.

“It's definitely a mistake,” Zhang Hongliang told the AP. “Never has any media outlet called me to check the athletes' ages.

“We already explained this very clearly,” Zhang said. “There's no need to discuss this thing again.”

Oh, but there is. The age of the Chinese gymnasts has overwhelmed the women's gymnastics competition.

It's not just the wild and often ill-timed accusations by USA Gymnastics team coordinator Marta Karoyli and her husband Bela Karoyli, who dubbed the Chinese “half people.”

It's the snickers from disbelieving fans around the world who can't come to grips with girls who look so young actually being 16.

The entire competition has lost credibility. Outside of China the focus has been on the birth dates, not the brilliance of the Chinese athletes.

The IOC and FIG can't continue to bury their heads and hope it will blow away.

“The FIG has received confirmation from the International Olympic Committee that all passports are valid for all gymnasts competing in the Beijing Olympic Games,” 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 an effort to protect the health of athletes whose bones and muscles have not fully formed, FIG years ago instituted the 16-year-old age minimum. To compete in these Games, a gymnast had to be born in 1992 or earlier.

A younger and presumably smaller gymnast would have an advantage in some disciplines due to their nimble nature. Nadia Comaneci scored seven perfect-10s in the 1976 Games when she was just 14.

Perhaps it's believable that one person's age could be so terribly confused. However, He is just one of the gymnasts with suspicious confusion.

The birth date of Yang Yilin was listed on official national registration lists posted by the General Administration of Sport of China website from 2004-2006 as a too-young Aug. 26, 1993, according to the AP.

On her passport her birth date is Aug. 26, 1992.

Jiang Yuyuan's birthday was Oct. 1, 1993 as recently as a registration list for a 2007 competition. According to her passport she was born Nov. 1, 1991.

All three of those gymnasts produced high-scoring performances on the uneven bars that gave China a lead it would not relinquish in the women's team all around. It was one reason Marta Karoyli stomped around mocking the Chinese to her American gymnasts, calling them “little babies” and later claiming one still had “baby teeth.”

Karoyli's suspicions were never wrong, just the style, means and timing in which she and her husband expressed them. The fact that her team's performance was not strong and she expanded the conspiracies to include Olympic officials who were supposedly distracting her gymnasts didn't help (that accusation was refuted by USA Gymnastics itself).

No matter the strength of the allegations, the moments after the competition was not the time for Karoyli to throw a hissy-fit unbecoming of a team coordinator.

Gymnastics deserve better from everyone. This cloud of controversy isn't fair to the Chinese, the Americans or anyone else, and it shouldn't be played out in media quotes and old websites.

A real investigation with real explanations is long overdue. It's time for the IOC to do more than count the money here.

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