Chinese gymnasts confirmed as eligible



By Nancy Armour

Though the case is closed on China’s Olympic gold medalists, the age controversy in gymnastics is far from over.

Documents confirm all six members of China’s gold medal team at the Beijing Games were old enough to compete, the International Gymnastics Federation said Wednesday. But it wants more answers from two members of China’s 2000 squad – Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun – saying it “does not consider the explanations and evidence provided to date in regards to these athletes as satisfactory.”

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It also is moving forward with a licensing system that would serve as proof of age for a gymnast’s entire career.

“It’s not about the medal,” said Dominique Dawes, part of the U.S. squad that finished fourth behind China at the 2000 Olympics. “The important issue is them righting a wrong and hopefully prohibiting future Olympians from being underage. It’s really about making sure every athlete is doing things the right way.”

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    Dong’s official birthdate is listed as Jan. 20, 1983. But her accreditation information for the Beijing Olympics, where she worked as a national technical official, lists her birthdate as Jan. 23, 1986, said Andre Gueisbuhler, the FIG’s secretary general.

    “If that document is the correct one, that would suggest she was 14 years old at the Sydney Olympic Games,” Gueisbuhler said.

    Gymnasts must turn 16 during an Olympic year to be eligible to compete.

    Calls to Yang and Dong’s mobile phones rang unanswered Wednesday, a national holiday. So did phone calls to the Chinese gymnastics team’s media officers.

    Questions about the ages of China’s Beijing squad had swirled for months, with media reports and online records suggesting some girls could be as young as 14. China insisted – heatedly and repeatedly – that all six gymnasts were old enough and said it had the documents to prove it. Any discrepancies, Chinese officials said, were the result of Web site inaccuracies or paperwork errors.

    When the IOC asked the FIG three days before the games ended to investigate one last time, China provided original passports, ID cards and family registers for He Kexin, Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin and Li Shanshan. All showed the girls were 16 or would turn 16 this year.

    “For the FIG, the age of the Chinese team is well documented and proven,” Gueisbuhler said.

    The furor surrounding the ages of China’s gold medalists might have gotten the most attention, but underage gymnasts have been the sport’s dirty little secret for years. Since the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 in 1981 to protect still-developing athletes from serious injuries, there have been several examples of countries trying to skirt the rules.

    The minimum age was raised to its current 16 in 1997.

    Romania admitted some of its gymnasts’ ages had been falsified, including Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu. Gymnasts from the Soviet Union said their birthdates were changed to allow them to compete.

    And North Korea was banned from the 1993 world championships after FIG officials discovered Kim Gwang Suk, the 1991 gold medalist on uneven bars, was listed as 15 for three years in a row.

    “There is a history of this, which is why I think the FIG feels so strongly about needing a license,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “If you’re going to have the rule, you have to be able to enforce it.

    “This situation has brought a higher sense of (emphasis) on, how do we address that in such a way that we don’t give someone just another piece of paper to show but there’s a policy in place that leaves no question.”

    Associated Press Writers Graham Dunbar, Stephen Wilson, Anita Chang and Gillian Wong contributed to this report