Recently I asked a Chinese journalist about the underage gymnast controversy. What, I asked her, did Chinese sportswriters who cover gymnastics think about the assertions that at least three of the members of the Chinese team were under 16? Was it western prejudice? Sour grapes? A cultural misunderstanding?
She didn't bat an eye. Chinese journalists generally knew that the gymnasts in question, He Kexin (two golds), Jiang Yuyuan (one gold), and Yang Yilin (one gold, two bronze) were underage by Federation International Gymnastics (FIG) rules. Indeed, as newspaper reports both inside and outside the country suggested, they were probably only 14 (the rules state that gymnasts must turn 16 in the year of the competition). These girls had competed in provincial and city competitions for several years, so their histories were not unknown. None of the journalists were able to say so on the record, she said, because it would cost them their jobs. Or worse. But it was common knowledge that the underage allegations were true.
If I can get that much from a single conversation with a one journalist, imagine what a full-bore IOC investigation might unearth. Where are the parents of these children? Where are the hospitals that delivered them? Where are their medical records? Their childhood neighbors and friends? The gymnasts they used to train with? Tracking down the age of these gymnasts wouldn't be rocket science, but it would take some time and effort. It might even exonerate China, and prove that, all along, the host nation was telling the truth. So why on earth hasn't it been done?
Why indeed. Cheating is cheating. The IOC spends millions of dollars trying to ferret out drug cheats. Yet they ignore allegations of institutionalized cheating by an authoritarian government that has the ability to alter the dates on a passport anytime it wants. The IOC's response to the whole underage gymnast controversy? One statement saying that they'd checked out the passports of the gymnasts in question and they were in order. Any other questions should be directed to the FIG. All's well in China. Let the Games begin. (How young do the Chinese gymnasts look? Check out the photos here.)
It's an outrage. For the IOC to sit idly by while an inept organization like the FIG -- the geniuses who meekly asked Paul Hamm to return his gold medal four years ago because their judges screwed up in the middle of the competition -- allows the Chinese to operate behind a cloak of secrecy makes a mockery of the concept of fair play. Asking the FIG to certify that China's gymnasts are really 16 is like asking the International Cycling Federation to do its own drug testing. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. The three monkeys ride again.
The U.S. women's team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, thinks the solution is to remove the age restrictions entirely, so that every country can use 14-year-old gymnasts, just as they did when Karolyi's prize pupil, Nadia Comaneci, was taking the gymnastics world by storm in 1976. And she's probably right that that's the only fair way, since after China's team gold medal in Beijing, the problem of using underage gymnasts is only going to get worse.
To roll back the age requirement, however, would be a backwards and unfortunate step. Many of us think the 16-year-old eligibility requirement is a good one, because we prefer to watch women gymnasts to seeing tiny tots doing clever tricks. We don't like it when a 16-year-old champion has to leave the sport because of the advent of puberty. We prefer the elegant artistry of an 18-year-old Nastia Liukin to the whirling acrobatics of a 13?- 14?- Who-knows-how-old? 73-pound He Kexin.
But if you're going to have an age restriction in a sport, you'd better have the stomach to enforce it. The FIG falls woefully short in the guts department. Sadly, so does the IOC. In his desperation to be able to stand up and, with a straight face, say to his hosts that these Beijing Games were "the best Olympic Games ever," IOC President Jacques Rogge has forgotten that most elemental of criteria.
A level playing field.
The visiting nations deserve one, too.