Less than two weeks before the Beijing Olympics, a potential scandal involving at least two of China’s most high-profile sports is threatening to tarnish those Games.
According to documents obtained by The Times, two Chinese gymnasts appear to be younger than once listed by the Chinese federation while a diver appeared to have her age changed to be eligible for last year’s world championships, though she would be eligible for the Olympics.
The issue of age for gymnasts He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan was first reported Sunday by the New York Times. Additional documents indicate the practice is more widespread. Diver Chen Ruolin appeared to have her age raised in time for her to win a gold and a silver medal at the 2007 world meet in Melbourne, Australia.
One indication that the Beijing government apparently was moving quickly to douse any hint of scandal came late Saturday night, Los Angeles time, as some relevant Chinese websites were taken down and parts of one message board were erased.
As in the U.S., there are message boards in China where fans chat and gossip about the most popular sports.
Particularly women’s gymnastics.
For well over a year, Chinese fans have been intrigued by the quick rise of uneven bars performer He Kexin, and not only for her rising scores of over 17.000 but also about her rising age.
As reported by the New York Times, there have been open discussions in gymnastics circles about the proper ages for some of the Chinese women gymnasts, especially He. Since 1997, international gymnastics rules have required that a gymnast must turn 16 during an Olympic year to be eligible for the Games.
According to official Chinese registration lists that had been available on the Internet, He may be only 14.
In fact, according to an Associated Press report of a Nov. 3, 2007, speech by Liu Peng, director of general administration of sport for China, there was no question she was too young. “The 13-year-old uneven-bar gymnast He Kexin,” Liu said, “who defeated national team athlete Yang Yilin -- she just won the bronze medal in the world championships -- has demonstrated her ability.” To be eligible for the Chinese City Games where Liu made his remarks, documents show athletes must be over 13 but under 15.
And gymnastics is not the only sport in which Chinese athletes’ birth dates seem changeable. The Los Angeles Times has received records for female diver Chen Ruolin that indicated her birth date as April 26, 1994, changed in 2007.
As reported by the New China (Xinhua) news agency on July 18, Chen was born Dec. 12, 1992, in the Jiangsu province.
But according to a 2003 Chinese national diving registration list that still could be found online as of Sunday night, Chen was born on April 26, 1994. Her birth date remained the same in 2004, 2005 and 2006 but on the 2007 list, it was changed to Dec. 12, 1992.
If the 1994 birth date is correct, Chen competed illegally at the 2007 world championships, where she won a silver medal in the 10-meter platform and a gold medal with teammate Jia Tong in the 10-meter synchronized platform.
In diving, competitors must turn 14 during the year they compete in any official World Cup, world championships or Olympics. So Chen is eligible for these Olympics but might not have been when she competed at the 2007 world championships.
Asked whether the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games was concerned with the questions about possibly underage Chinese athletes, spokesman Sun Weide said today, “You have to check your facts. You have to check with the Chinese Olympic Committee.”
Attempts to reach a Chinese Olympic Committee spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Zhou Jihong, China’s national diving team leader, said, “Those newspaper reports about Chen’s [being] underage is not true. We can fax to you Chen Ruolin’s birth certificate and ID card to prove it. We don’t want the rumor [to affect] our athletes two weeks before the Olympic Games.”
Ron O’Brien, U.S. high performance director for diving and former coach of Greg Louganis, said, “We’ve always felt that it’s hard to document China. We take them at their word that they’re not breaking any rules. If [Chen] is not of age and was illegally entered into the world championships, then it is up to FINA to deal with it. Our team and plan are firmly in place. Nothing will change that.”
FINA is the international governing body of diving, swimming and water polo.
USC diving coach Hongping Li, who is from China, said Sunday that while he couldn’t speak about Chen personally, the shifting birth dates for some Chinese athletes does not surprise him.
“It is a thing where if it is believed by the athlete to be done for the glory of the country, if it is best for the country, then it should be done. Am I surprised this might be done? No.”
Stories in China about uneven bars athlete He have been open about listing her age as 14.
For example, a story published Dec. 2, 2007, in the Beijing Evening News includes this sentence: “To make up for the disadvantages of the women’s team on uneven bars, the 13-year-old young athlete He, Kexin might be the secret weapon for the Olympics game.”
On a Chinese message board, tieba.baidu.com, there was a discussion thread about He that began last year.
“Only 13 years old. Not enough is the new star for the next Olympics,” wrote one poster.
Another answered: “The age of Chinese members is never a problem.”
And that was followed by: “In addition, age is not a problem. It is said that her FIG-registered age is born in 92. The official spokesperson can say it straight that the city competition’s Internet date is mistaken. It should be based on the registration of FIG.”
Also, “In China age is never a problem. Li Ya competed in 03’s World Competition when she was 13.”
FIG is the international gymnastics federation.
Li Ya was on the Chinese team that finished fourth at the 2003 gymnastics world championships in Anaheim. Li also finished fourth on the balance beam.
And finally, “It’s too late to fix He’s age. Many foreigners already knew it. It would need to change the name and use a false record to see if it can go through.” The reply to this suggestion? “It doesn’t matter. If He, Kexin’s skills are very good we Chinese can change her age very easily. I think this is pretty much the norm for Chinese teams.”
The Times received evidence that the alteration of ages was not started solely for the Beijing Games.
In addition, “Report from Fu, Guoliang at the Meeting Relating to Hunan Province’s Participations in Olympics in Sydney,” which was still available online Sunday afternoon , made reference to gymnast Yang Yun, who participated in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“The actual age of gymnastic athlete Yang Yun is only 14. When she first tried in Sydney Games, she attracted attention from gymnastic fields. She has great potential in the future.” Yang’s career ended prematurely because of injuries.
Yang Yun had become the topic of recent discussions when a YouTube video of a documentary entitled “Yang Yun: My Olympics” was posted. About 3 minutes 10 seconds into the video Yang says, “I was 14 years old in Sydney.”
Also, on Friday, a Zhejiang Province registration list showed another 2008 Olympian, Jiang Yuyuan, as being born in 1993, which would make her age-ineligible for next month’s Games. That link was disabled Sunday.
On the U.S. team, Alicia Sacramone and Chellsie Memmel are 20; Nastia Liukin is 18; and Shawn Johnson, Samantha Peszek and Bridget Sloan are 16.
FIG is responsible for approving athletes for competition.
Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, in a brief statement Sunday said, “This is an FIG and IOC issue.”
According to the New York Times, FIG Secretary General Andre Gueisbuhler responded to questions about He’s age by saying:
“We heard these rumors and we immediately wrote to the Chinese gymnastics federation. They immediately sent a copy of the passport, showing the age, and everything is OK. That’s all we can check.” He also told the New York Times FIG would be “quite happy to check and ask again” if anyone filed a formal complaint.
USA Gymnastics officials were clear that the U.S. would not file a complaint and had not filed one.
Women’s gymnastics competition in Beijing begins Aug. 10. The U.S. won the 2007 world championship team gold medal, with China a close second.
Philip Hersh, who covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune, contributed to this report from Beijing. Times contributor Jordan Schultz also contributed to this report from Los Angeles.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A controversy is born
Diver may have been too young for worlds
According to New China (Xinhua) news agency, in a story published July 18, Chinese diver Chen Ruolin was ecstatic when she was named to the Chinese Olympic diving team.
“I am confident to bring back two gold medals at the Beijing Games,” said Chen, who is listed as diving in the 10-meter platform and 10-meter synchronized platform events. “I will work hard on every dive instead of caring too much about results.”
Chen won a gold and a silver medal at the 2007 world championships, where she was listed as being born Dec. 12, 1992.
But according to a Chinese sports federation website, now taken down, Chen was born April 26, 1994. The age rule for diving is that the athlete must turn at least 14 during the year of competition. So by either birth date, Chen is eligible for the Olympics but she was not eligible to compete at the 2007 world championships.
According to the story, Chen started her diving career at the age of 4 and was recruited to the national team when she was 12. She also said she found her experiences at international events last year to be helpful.
“The worlds had offered valuable experience for me in preparation for the upcoming Beijing Olympics,” Chen said. “I think the biggest challenge is always from oneself.”
However, if Chen was born in 1994, she would not have been eligible for that experience.
-- Diane Pucin
Gymnast may not be old enough for Games
According to Chinese news reports, He Kexin came to the attention of the national gymnastics coaches after her uneven bars routine was the best at the 2007 Chinese City Games. She was not, however, on the national team that finished second to the U.S. at the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany.
He made her international debut at the 2008 World Cup meet in Doha where she scored a 16.550. She reportedly scored a 17.300 at an event in Tianjin in May. Last year, according to at least five Chinese-language news stories and also a popular Chinese-language Internet message board, He was born Jan. 1, 1994, which would make her age-ineligible for the 2008 Olympics. Yet, according to the passport submitted last February to international gymnastics’ governing body, FIG, He was born Jan. 1, 1992. To be eligible for the Olympics, gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year.
He’s signature uneven bars release move is named after another Chinese gymnast, Li Ya, whose birth date also reportedly was changed to make her eligible for the 2003 world championships in Anaheim.
-- Diane Pucin