Just nine months before the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese government's news agency, Xinhua, reported that gymnast He Kexin was 13, which would have made her ineligible to be on the team that won a gold medal this week.
In its report Nov. 3, Xinhua identified He as one of "10 big new stars" who made a splash at China's Cities Games. It gave her age as 13 and reported that she beat Yang Yilin on the uneven bars at those games. In the final, "this little girl" pulled off a difficult release move on the bars known as the Li Na, named for another Chinese gymnast, Xinhua said in the report, which appeared on one of its Web sites, www.hb.xinhuanet.com
The Associated Press found the Xinhua report on the site Thursday morning and saved a copy of the page. Later that afternoon, the Web site was still working but the page was no longer accessible. Sports editors at the state-run news agency would not comment for publication.
If the age reported by Xinhua was correct, that would have meant He was too young to be on the Chinese team that beat the United States on Wednesday and clinched China's first women's team Olympic gold in gymnastics. He is also a favorite for gold in Monday's uneven bars final.
Yang was also on Wednesday's winning team. Questions have also been raised about her age and that of a third team member, Jiang Yuyuan.
Gymnasts have to be 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible for the games. He's birthday is listed as Jan. 1, 1992. (Judge for yourself here, and offer your reactions here.)
Chinese authorities insist that all three are old enough to compete. He herself told reporters after Wednesday's final that "my real age is 16. I don't pay any attention to what everyone says."
Zhang Hongliang, an official with China's gymnastics delegation at the games, said Thursday the differing ages which have appeared in Chinese media reports had not been checked in advance with the gymnastics federation.
"It's definitely a mistake," Zhang said of the Xinhua report, speaking in a telephone interview. "Never has any media outlet called me to check the athletes' ages."
Asked whether the federation had changed their ages to make them eligible, Zhang said: "We are a sports department. How would we have the ability to do that?"
"We already explained this very clearly. There's no need to discuss this thing again."
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has said repeatedly that a passport is the "accepted proof of a gymnast's eligibility," and that He and China's other gymnasts have presented ones that show they are age eligible. The IOC also checked the girls' passports and deemed them valid.
A May 23 story in the China Daily newspaper, the official English-language paper of the Chinese government, said He was 14. The story was later corrected to list her as 16.
"This is not a USAG issue," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "The FIG and the IOC are the proper bodies to handle this."