FIG clears 2008 Chinese gymnasts
Posted October 1, 2008on:
The FIG cleared the 2008 Chinese gymnasts, including He Kexin, of age falsification today.
But the weirdest part of this whole saga is that the 2000 gymnasts Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun are still under investigation. Of course, Americans are less likely to care about this because it would not change the results for the U.S. team. Nevertheless, the fact that the 2000 gymnasts are still under investigation while the 2008 gymnasts are not says something that is questionable at best about what is considered proper evidence in these investigations.
The pieces of evidence that led the FIG to investigate Dong and Yang came from the gymnasts’ own mouths: Dong on her blog, and Yang in a 2007 interview. The FIG then later found that the documentation for Dong provided in 2008 seemed to suggest she was 14 in 2000 (not exactly sure what that says about the bureaucrats at the FIG — did they read the date of birth?!).
What is less clear is why Romania is not being similarly investigated for Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu, despite the fact that the country itself admitted that the two were underage when they competed. Of course, this opens a huge can of worms, because there are undoubtedly other gymnasts, especially from centralized systems with secretive governments, who should then be subject to a once-over.
In this post I said there were a number of things to consider in this investigation, so let me address them now.
First, should the FIG have been further investigating the matter once the Chinese government had provided passports, birth certificates, and national ID cards, all “proving” the girls’ ages? On the one hand, there is plenty of evidence that many countries have falsified documents or simply lied about ages in order to get their best athletes on their teams. Given the fact that there were independently obtained documents — from the Chinese government itself (the Administration of Sport) — and from a national newspaper (less convincing) that seemed to suggest He was fourteen, there was certainly sufficient evidence to warrant an investigation, in my opinion. This is not to say that it is the job of the FIG or of the IOC to question the policies of a sovereign nation, but on the other hand we have sports governing bodies precisely because the stakes are so high — or at the very least, because people think the stakes are so high. The fact that China is an oppressive, secretive, and massively corrupt regime, however, should not play a role. Unfortunately, the FIG and IOC should deal with each country similarly, regardless of regime type. I don’t think that this “fairness” should extend to international politics, of course (!), but in the case of international sports’ governing bodies, I think there is a limit. This is apparently the view of the FIG. Once China provided documentation, that was sufficient. The exception came when the gymnasts themselves began suggesting that they were underage. I think that that justifiably reopens the investigation. To be clear, especially given what I know of the Chinese government, I sincerely doubt He was of-age for Beijing. And the matter of consistency on behalf of the FIG will be addressed when, perhaps, someday, she admits this. To go back to the original point, I think the FIG has reached the appropriate conclusion here: trust national governments unless this becomes an obvious political liability.
Second, if a nation is found to have falsified ages, what should happen to the athletes’ medals? Like many others, I have the initial knee-jerk reaction to say that once the medals have been — at least in terms of the competition — justly obtained, that it is too late. Perhaps some penalties for future competition, but no revoking of medals. However, upon further reflection, this is simply not sustainable practice. If an athlete is found to have been “cheating” in any way, the medals should be revoked — one of the main purposes of punishment is deterrence. It would naturally leave a bad taste in my mouth to collect a medal that I did not feel rightfully belong to me (as the Americans might have had they suddenly been given team gold). But that is not the important point — the important point is that medals must be won with adherence to the rules, and if they were found to have been acquired by less-than-legitimate means, they should be taken away. This, incidentally, brings up the question of Andreea Raducan. What if the FIG were to change (again) its age policy, back up to sixteen? Should Dong and Yang, imagining that their medals have been taken away, be given back their medals? Of course not! Then it would be in any country’s interest to break rules that are not pleasing to them, and then lobby for their revocation in the aftermath. It is for this reason, as much as it breaks my heart, that Raducan should not get her medal back, despite the fact that the drug has since been removed from the restricted list. The penalty for age falsification, like for any other breach of the rules — particularly given the supposed ideology of peace and international understanding that governs the Olympic Games — should be immediate forfeiture of victories.
Finally, what does all of this mean for the question of age limits? There is obvious evidence that younger girls are more flexible, have less fear, and have less wear-and-tear on their bodies. That is to say, the difference between fourteen and sixteen can make a significant difference. This suggests that using a fourteen-year-old when all the others are competing with older gymnasts could have a significant impact on the outcome. At a minimum, the Chinese picked their talent from the best they had, regardless of age (at least, that’s what I believe) and the Americans, for instance, did not — what of Rebecca Bross, for instance? So age could have made a difference.
But the real question is, should the age limit remain? The intent of the age limit was to limit overtraining of young girls and to avoid major injury to children. As it happens, I have just pointed out that younger gymnasts tend to be less broken, not more. So that argument is questionable at best. Moreover, it is hardly clear that the age change has led to less overtraining, particularly in systems like the Chinese system. (Especially if certain countries are bringing underage athletes anyway! But let’s assume for a second that they’re not.) There are some major international competitions junior international elites can attend, including Europeans and Pacific Rim/Alliance, plus other small meets. This is less than for seniors, but the juniors are training the same number of hours as the seniors. The smaller number of meets means the juniors aren’t repeatedly trying to peak — at least, not nearly as often — but they are undoubtedly training just as hard. Which means the suggestion that this lowering of the age limit has made any difference to training regimens, hours spent in the gym, or early starts to gymnastics careers, is lackluster. Probably at best we have kids peaking and then sitting around in a holding pattern — anyone worried, for instance, that Jordyn Wieber could break in, say, the four years she has before she turns sixteen? Does anyone think that she is not training as hard as a senior on a day-to-day basis? Ultimately, this artificial limit has been attempted, has failed, and has caused more trouble than it’s worth. Hopefully this denouement has proven this to the FIG.
ETA 10/9: In a big turn of events — whose meaning I have yet to interpret — the Chinese Gymnastics Association is now investigating the ages of the two 2000 Olympians who have not yet been cleared by the FIG. Spokesman Zhou Quiriu:
“The local authorities provided us with the athletes’ profiles, including age. Our job was only to select the best among them,” she said. “We are not the government and don’t have any power. We can only coordinate.”
The two gymnasts of interest are Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun. Dong’s case is particularly troublesome since she worked for the IOC at the Olympics this year with work records suggesting she was only 14 in 2000. Oops.
Not sure what the relationship is of the CGA to the government, but I find it hard to believe that it has any truly autonomous power should the government ever become interested in its activities. Anyway, I don’t know what the CGA could get out of this — besides losing a medal and maybe gaining some respect for investigating (I wouldn’t put it past them to make that kind of calculated move) — but we’ll have to wait and see.