Thursday, August 21, 2008

Chinese Years Are Like Dog Years, Apparently.

It seems time moves at a different pace in China than it does everywhere else in the world.

This explains why Chinese gymnasts He Kexin (winner of the team gold medal and the individual gold medal on the uneven parallel bars), Jiang Yuyuan (team gold medalist) and Yang Yilin (team gold medalist and bronze medal winner for all-round individual competition and individual uneven parallel bars) were as young as 13 last year, and yet have all celebrated -- or will celebrate -- their sixteenth birthdays this year, per FIG requirements. The International Olympic Committee has finally put the onus back on the FIG (the federation that governs international gymnastics competition) to verify once and for all that the Chinese gymnasts were eligible to compete at the time they won their medals.

Since this entire controversy began, the FIG has avoided it like the plague, claiming that the government-issued passports couldn't possibly have been falsified and that, even if they were, it wasn't the FIG's responsibility to verify them. Yet it was the FIG that established the "16-year-old or higher" age requirement in the first place, much to the chagrin of gymnastics coaches the world over. Former Romanian-turned-American gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, whose wife coached the US women to a silver team medal this year, believes the age requirement is arbitrary and limiting, and disqualifies some of the most exciting competitors when they're at their athletic peak. Karolyi believes that gymnasts between 14 and 17 are the best they'll ever be, because they are lighter, smaller and more fearless at these younger ages. This is borne out by his own prodigies -- Nadia Comaneci and Mary Lou Retton -- who both reached their zeniths around age 17, then never quite matched the glory of their younger years.

But Karolyi is also adamant that rules are rules, and should apply to everyone equally in international competition. He seems particularly offended at the brazen way the Chinese coaches have put forth girls that he feels are clearly younger than the age limit allows, and then rubbed the noses of the international gymnastics world in it. Says Karolyi:

"These people think we are stupid...We are in the business of gymnastics. We know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like. What kind of slap in the face is this? They are 12, 14 years old and they get lined up and the government backs them and the federation runs away. There is an age limit and it can't be controlled."
The Chinese gymnastics federation has since "provided new documents" (including what they're calling an old passport and various government-issued IDs) that prove that He was born in 1992. But the New York Times uncovered proof through the very simple process of searching the Internet for old newspaper articles -- many of them in Chinese newspapers -- cached in Google, He -- a sensation in her country for the last two years -- is definitely listed as being 13 last year, and her birth year is given as 1994.
The FIG is still running away from this issue full-force. Setting the arbitrary age limit (a limit that exists in no other event, since several 14- and 15-year-old swimmers and divers competed this year in Beijing) was a mistake that the FIG seems reluctant to back away from. Now that doing so has set up a situation that could create an international incident, they are less inclined to step forward to make it right unless forced to by the IOC (another organization that's not exactly hellbent on upsetting the applecart).

Let's face it. In the grand scheme of things, this isn't exactly life or death. Personally, I think He Kexin is just as cute as she can be. I'd like to take her home and feed her a hearty stew and some rolls. And in spite of the prejudicial judging system, the farcical age restrictions and the flurry of injuries the US team suffered immediately before their competitions began, American female gymnasts totally rocked the "hiz-ouse." But that is hardly the point. The Olympics is supposed to be about setting a new, higher standard for international interaction, removed from customary politics. It's also supposed to be about competing on equal footing. To have not just competitors, not just teams and coaches, but entire nations and their governmental documentation agencies, participating in a giant ponzi scheme in order to give their teams an advantage on the international stage does not bode well for either the Games or the sport of gymnastics. It taints the medals that were won by everyone, in every sport, because it casts doubt on the levelness of the playing field. It tampers with the "true north" of fair play.

Furthermore, between trying to kill us with poisoned toothpaste, our pets with tainted pet food, and our kids with lead-painted toys, I think we've given China enough of a pass to last a lifetime. I say, make the lying, cheating SOBs face the music once and for all, and quit trying to kiss China's ass,just because we know that, in a few years, we'll be second to them as a world power.


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