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U.S. Olympic gymnastic team gets bronze, 10 years later

Dominique Dawes, Kristen Maloney, Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzscher, Elise Ray and Tasha Schwikert found out they were Olympic bronze medalists Wednesday.

The award is 10 years late and bittersweet for the members of the U.S. women’s 2000 Olympic gymnastics team that finished fourth overall and left Sydney, Australia, without a single medal — team or individual.

On Wednesday, China was stripped of its team bronze by the International Olympic Committee because of evidence presented to the IOC that one Chinese gymnast, Dong Fangxiao, was only 14 at the time. Age requirements stipulate that a gymnast must turn 16 the year of the Olympics.

Similar controversy surrounded the 2008 Chinese female gymnasts, even before they won team gold ahead of the U.S. silver medalists. Based mostly on Chinese state documents, reports on the Internet suggested at least three of the competitors on that team, including uneven bars star He Kexin, were underage. Officials of FIG, the international gymnastics federation, said the information available did not constitute any proof of violations.

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Maloney, who is now a preschool teacher in New York and who competed for UCLA after the 2000 Games, said her feelings about receiving a delayed medal were still muddled.

“It just still feels unreal,” Maloney said. “I feel sad for the Chinese that they felt like they needed to cheat. It’s just sad for them. It was such a long time ago for me that I don’t know how I feel yet.”

Schwikert, who also went to UCLA after those Olympics, said she’ll like giving a different answer to the question, “Did you win a medal? I’ve always said, ‘No, we got fourth.’ Now it will be nice to say, ‘We got bronze.’ We worked hard for that. I do believe we earned it.”

As Maloney said, the experience of 2000 wasn’t joyful for most of the women.

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After lackluster international results in 1999, USA Gymnastics reacted by putting Bela Karolyi in overall command of the team and requiring the top competitors and their individual coaches to report periodically to his Houston-area ranch. The turmoil among individual coaches and Karolyi caused tension, Maloney and Schwikert both noted.

At the end of the 2000 Games, Maloney, Dantzscher and Ray called their Olympic experiences “disappointing,” especially with the lack of medals.

Since 2000, the training system has been tweaked and the combination of monthly sessions with Bela Karolyi and his wife, Martha, in conjunction with the individual coaches, has resulted in the U.S. winning consecutive gold individual all-around medals (Carly Patterson in 2004 and Nastia Liukin in 2008) as well as consecutive team silver medals.

Dong worked as a national technical official at the Beijing Olympics and her accreditation information given to the IOC for the event listed her birthday as Jan. 23, 1986, which would have made her 14 in Sydney and which prompted this investigation. Her birthdate was listed in the FIG database as Jan. 20, 1983.

“I’m very glad this result came out,” said Karolyi, who has been outspoken in his belief that the age rule has been manipulated. “There was obstruction of the legal age of the Chinese athlete and I’m glad it was finally discovered.”

Dawes, who now has medals from the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Games, called receiving this bronze medal “justice delayed,” and joked that maybe she’ll go back into training.

“Maybe this will inspire me to come back for a fourth Olympics,” said Dawes, who works for Yahoo Sports. “Oh, wait. Is there a maximum age?”

Like Maloney, Dawes said more than being happy for herself she felt badly for the Chinese women.

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“It’s not the athletes’ fault,” Dawes said. “They do what they are told.” Dawes also said she wouldn’t be surprised to see this as a catalyst for changing, or eliminating, the age requirement.

“There’s been so much controversy,” Dawes said. “It wouldn’t shock me if the FIG and IOC looked at that rule, changed it or eliminated it.”

Kelli Hill, who was coach of the 2000 team, said she had been aware of rumors of the Chinese team’s age issues in 2000. “It was discussed a lot,” she said. “We heard stories but we never had anything confirmed. It was just the rumor mill.”

USA Gymnastics hasn’t planned how it will award the medals to the U.S. team. Maloney said that however she receives hers, it will be treasured.

“It was a really hard experience in Sydney,” Maloney said. “I think I will love this medal when I get it.”

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin


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