The Chinese gymnasts could have picked out their leotards from Thumbelina's closet as they performed gymnastics in miniature on Wednesday. Wearing blue eye shadow with their hair pulled back, He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin looked like girls who had just rummaged through their mothers' makeup. This was a ladies' final, though somehow it was hard to see how they qualified as women.
Amid pre-Olympic hand-wringing over why the birthdates of He, Yang and Jiang didn't jibe with other registration materials that showed they might be as young as 14, China swore on its stars' passport stamps that the tots are the legal tumbling age of 16. But while the tiny trio helped their nation whisk the gold medal away from a suddenly clumsy U.S. group in the team competition, it was impossible to deny the visual evidence of something unjust in China.
Just take a peek at the big lugs who stood next to the Chinese team. The U.S. squad is filled with women who are short to be sure, but with a curve to their bodies, muscle on their bones and driver's licenses in their wallets. This is gymnastics, so truth in aging is often blurred by a brutal sport laden with underdeveloped teens. With that context, did little He look sweet 16 in the eyes of other competitors?
"No, but then I don't look 20," said Alicia Sacramone, who did not make excuses after she fell flat while mounting the balance beam. With the U.S. just one point behind China heading into the last rotation, Sacramone ended up on her backside during the floor exercise. It was a mistake that effectively put gold out of reach and delivered a consolation silver to the U.S. "It was my fault," she said.
Blame-shifting is easier for others. While Sacramone revealed grace, U.S. coach Martha Karolyi revealed her doubts, feeding the age conspiracy issue by saying, "I have no clue [if they are 16]. I cannot make that call. ... It could be true. One little girl has a missing tooth."
This dental obsession must be a Karolyi family trait. Her husband, Bela, made a similar assessment last week before the competition began, bellowing, "Look in their mouths. It's like itty bitty teeth."
The investigation into the mouths of babes has been far from intensive. Basically the international gymnastics federation agrees with the birth date evidence provided by Chinese officials. And that is that. The Olympic caretaker of fairness, the IOC, has stayed largely out of the debate, with its members ever cautious not to offend host China. They see blue skies when others see pollution. They distanced themselves from Olympian Joey Cheek when his visa was revoked. They don't dare rattle sponsors who crave the consumer love of 1.3 billion people.
This brushfire is not politics, though the IOC has acted as if it is. The age suspicion is a field of play issue. Any violation of the age requirements is an act of cheating, an issue that the IOC has always cared deeply about, particularly when it comes to doping.
"[Age] is a bigger problem than doping," Bela Karolyi said. "I think it's more cheating than doping. To look in the eye of everybody and to show up with a team underage? My god, it's not good."
No amount of Bela-aching is likely to alter the outcome. The last time IOC president Jacques Rogge meddled with the medals was at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002. In a rush to soothe North American audiences who, along with NBC commentators, went crackers when the beautiful Canadians lost the pairs skating gold to the Russians amid the French judge scandal, Rogge allowed a duplicate gold, bending to public rage. Never mind that the Canadians performed an inferior program to the Russians.
So do not expect a peep out of the IOC this time, no matter how angered American fans might be. If Rogge & Co. were ever going to stick their noses in this delicate case, it should have been last month when The New York Timesraised the contradictory age calculations for the Chinese gymnasts.
"It's not an even playing field," Martha Karolyi said. She understands that China was the better team in the finals. She knows the U.S. sabotaged itself with missteps. But she is right. Age has a lot to do with what's level in gymnastic competitions. There is a mental advantage for youngsters who are clueless about pressure, unaware of what wobbles the burden to win can create. Maybe that was Sacramone's problem. She is a veteran at 20 -- ready for bingo in gymnastic years -- and old enough to know what one flawed moment can mean in a team competition. Halfway through the team finals, she came unglued. "My nerves got the better of me," she said.
The young seem immune to meltdowns. With Kool-Aid running through their veins, China's gymnasts were unflappable -- especially He in the uneven bars. What an edge she had at 4-foot-8 and 73 pounds, flitting through the uneven bars with jaw-dropping release moves, light as a dragonfly. The judges adored He, whatever her age.
"I don't want to make a comment on that," said Liang Chow, the coach of American Shawn Johnson. "I believe the officials will deal with it. I'll leave it at that."
Gymnastics officials have dealt with it -- approving the age of China's gymnasts based on China-issued papers. The IOC blindly bought into this resolution, unconditionally devoted to China, seeing no need to doubt its flying Thumbelinas.