Wed, Jul 30, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Age-related doubts haunt Chinese gymnasts

Attempts to ascertain the ages of two Chinese athletes are like a game of cloak-and-dagger, while athletes from around the world are loath to say anything for fear of reprisal while in Beijing

By Jere Longman and Juliet Macur  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

China named its Olympic women’s gymnastics team on Friday and the inclusion of at least two athletes has further raised questions — widespread in the sport — about whether the host country for the Beijing Games is using underage athletes.

Chinese officials responded immediately, providing the New York Times with copies of passports indicating that both gymnasts in question — He Kexin (何柯欣), a gold-medal favorite in the uneven parallel bars, and Jiang Yuyuan (江鈺源) — are 16, the minimum age for Olympic eligibility.

Officials with the International Gymnastics Federation said that questions about He’s age had been raised by Chinese news media reports, USA Gymnastics and fans of the sport, but that Chinese authorities presented passport information to show that He is 16.

But online records listing Chinese gymnasts and their ages that were posted on official Web sites in China, along with ages given in the official Chinese news media, seem to contradict the passport information, indicating that He and Jiang may be as young as 14.

Mary Lou Retton, the all-around gymnastics champion at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, recently watched a competition video of He and other Chinese gymnasts on the uneven bars.

“The girls are so little, so young,” Retton said.

Speaking of He, Retton rolled her eyes and laughed, saying: “They said she was 16, but I don’t know.”

An advantage for younger gymnasts is that they are lighter and, often, more fearless when they perform difficult maneuvers, said Nellie Kim, a five-time Olympic gold medalist for the former Soviet Union who is now the president of the women’s technical committee for the Swiss-based International Gymnastics Federation.

“It’s easier to do tricks,” Kim said. “And psychologically, I think they worry less.”

The women’s gymnastics competition at the Beijing Games, which begin Aug. 8, is expected to be a dramatic battle for the team gold medal between the US and China. At lat year’s world championships, the US prevailed by 95-hundredths of a point.

On the uneven bars, He and Nastia Liukin of the US are expected to challenge for an individual gold medal.

In Chinese newspaper profiles this year, He was listed as 14, too young for the Beijing Games.

The New York Times found two online records of official registration lists of Chinese gymnasts that list He’s birthday as Jan. 1, 1994, which would make her 14. A national registry of Chinese gymnasts for last year — now blocked in China but viewable through Google cache — shows He’s age as “1994.1.1.”

Another registration list that is unblocked, dated Jan. 27, 2006, regarding an intercity competition in Chengdu also lists He’s birthday as Jan. 1, 1994. That date differs by two years from the birth date of Jan. 1, 1992, listed on He’s passport, which was issued on Feb. 14 this year.

There has been considerable talk about the ages of Chinese gymnasts on Web sites devoted to the sport. And there has been frequent editing of He’s Wikipedia entry, although it could not be determined by whom. One paragraph that discusses the controversy of her age kept disappearing and reappearing. As of Friday, a different version of the paragraph had been restored to the page.

The other gymnast, Jiang, is listed on her passport — issued March 2, 2006 — as having been born on Nov. 1, 1991, which would make her 16.

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