Liukin loses numbers game

Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- He Kexin marched into the news conference for gold-medal winners fashionably late Monday night. Already on the podium were still rings winner Chen Yibing and his coach; men’s vault winner Leszek Blanik and his coach; and women’s trampoline winner He Wenna and her coach.

He Kexin pulled up a chair. The 16-year-old from China had been in doping control, being tested after she won the uneven parallel bars gold medal by virtue of a tiebreaking procedure over Nastia Liukin from Parker, Texas.

Liukin, 18, now has four medals -- gold in the individual all-around, two silvers and a bronze -- and she will go for a fifth medal tonight on the balance beam, where she is the world champion.

He and Liukin received a score of 16.725, but He won because she received a lower average deduction (0.933) than Liukin (0.966). China’s Yang Yilin won the bronze medal with a score of 16.650.


Though there is evidence that He is only 14 -- a story published by several Chinese media outlets last November quoted a Chinese sports federation official as calling her a 13-year-old 2012 Olympic hopeful -- she is now a double-gold medal winner and an unflappable competitor on and off the arena floor.

When He arrived at her news conference, she was asked three times about the discrepancies in her reported age.

“My explanation is that my real age is 16,” she said. “I was born in 1992.” When she read news accounts last fall that listed her as 13, He said she did not feel the need to correct the reporting.

“This is not important,” she said. “I don’t care what others say. I’m only focused on my gymnastics. I am 16, that’s why I’m here. If I wouldn’t be, I couldn’t be here. That is all.”

He’s teammate Yang has also been part of the age controversy, with her birth date appearing as 1994 on some provincial registration lists. Olympic gymnasts need to be at least 16 or turn that age during the year of the competition.

But it was the numbers on the scoreboard that were confusing Monday.

The tiebreaking formula is so convoluted, former U.S. coach Bela Karolyi didn’t understand how it worked and even the partisan Chinese crowd at the National Indoor Stadium seemed subdued in its reaction to He’s receiving the gold medal on the podium.

Until after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, double or even triple medals were awarded if there were tie scores. Bruno Grandi, president of the international gymnastics federation, FIG, wishes that were still the case. “If you have the same score,” he said, “you should get the same medal.”

But Grandi said that after 1996, the International Olympic Committee said judged sports needed a tiebreaking procedure, and Monday night it was used to decide two gold medals. In the men’s vault, Poland’s Blanik won gold over France’s Thomas Bouhail in a tiebreaker after both had an average of 16.537 for their two vaults.

At competitions other than the Olympics, multiple medals are awarded if scores are tied.

He performed first on the uneven bars and flew through her routine with high speed. She grabbed the bar resolutely on every release move but did have a small crossover step on her landing.

Liukin came second. She had a slow moment on a move from the high bar to the low bar, but for the first time since she started doing this high-difficulty routine, Liukin punctuated the finish with a double twisting landing done minus even the twitch of a toe.

Her score flashed up on the board, 16.725, same as He’s. But He had a (1) in front of her name and Liukin had a (2). The tiebreaking procedure is programmed into the scoreboard computer.

Liukin said she just assumed she and He were tied. It wasn’t until the competition was over that U.S. team coordinator Martha Karolyi explained the situation. “I just didn’t know what was happening,” Liukin said.

She also said her routine wasn’t perfect. “It wasn’t my best,” Liukin said. “I definitely had some mistakes.”

Liukin’s father and coach, Valeri, also has four Olympic medals, same as his daughter. “But I have two golds,” Valeri said with a wink. His daughter can beat her father today if she wins the balance beam.

In her way is her American teammate Shawn Johnson, the pre-Olympic all-around and floor gold-medal favorite who has two silver medals so far, plus China’s balance beam star Li Shanshan and team veteran Cheng Fei, who left the floor in tears Monday after falling on a vault and on her floor exercise.

Even though Liukin said she hasn’t slept much since winning the all-around title last Friday, she is accepting her father’s challenge to beat him with her medal haul. “I want to get that gold feeling again,” she said. “I missed that today.”

China’s Chen, the two-time defending world champion on still rings, won the gold, and his teammate Yang Wei, who won the Olympic all-around gold medal last week, took silver. Ukraine’s Oleksandr Vorobiov won the bronze.

That made China five for five in men’s gymnastics gold medals awarded until Blanik won the gold on vault, the first gymnastics medal, men or women, for Poland.