The C Score (2.0)

Posts Tagged ‘2000 Olympics

Bela Karolyi was in Chicago today to promote the American Cup, which will be held there in March 2009. There is a lot of good information coming out of these articles.

Bela at his ranch

Bela at his ranch

The Chinese age scandal

What, you thought it was going to go away?

Karolyi is still talking about the Chinese age scandal. He thinks the 2000 Olympics inquiry was perfunctory and is not convincing in the slightest:

“I think that’s just a cover-up. They’re trying to hold onto their reputation on this issue, when it’s one of the most blatant things we’ve ever seen.”

Karolyi says that he complained about the age question back in Sydney, saying that he pointed out that one of the girls (I assume Dong Fangxiao, but it could have been Yang Yun) had been a junior the year before and that it was impossible that she could have aged two years in one year. (He makes a good point.)

Interestingly, Karolyi was backed up by Steve Penny of USA Gymnastics more than usual. He said “Bela makes a good point when he says the Chinese kids went out there and did a good job. But there’s a rule that says you’ve got to be 16.”

My favorite part is where he added: “Here’s Rebecca Bross, two months short of being able to compete, sitting, crying in front of her TV, watching kids younger than her compete.” Really? Rebecca Bross was CRYING in front of her television?

It’s official: Marta’s staying

Bela confirms that Marta will be around at least through 2012. Interestingly, Penny says that the Karolyis (both of them) are “USA Gymnastics’ long-term plan.” Everyone loves the program (that Bela created, and that they hated at the time … no, I’m not bitter).

Bela then mentioned Kim Zmeskal as a possible successor!

Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson, Samantha Peszek continuing

Apparently Liukin was briefly at the trainign camp that just started, and told Bela she would continue competing.

Bela also said that while we lost all of our athletes after the 2004 cycle, at least Liukin, Johnson and Peszek will continue.

A little clue on Bela’s favorites?

When asked who the next big thing was, Bela answered Rebecca Bross and Jordyn Wieber. He called Wieber a “diamond” and compared her to Shawn Johnson (directly, and also by mentioning her ability to stay on the beam!).

And: one last (boring) article.

The Karolyis win again … and it’s not a medal or a title … it’s a … business award? The Karolyis were awarded the “Houston International Executive of the Year” award by the Kiwanis Club, according to this press release by USA Gymnastics.

Probably the most exciting part is that you can buy tickets to the celebratory luncheon (see press release for details). Not a bad lunch break for Houston natives!

According to the press release, this is the 22nd edition of this award:

The International Executive of the Year recognizes an outstanding business person who has demonstrated the global leadership that continues to make Houston a center of international business.

Certainly the Karolyis have a thriving gymnastics empire down there, but are they really contributing to Houston’s renown as an international center of business?

More interesting is that they were awarded this honor *together* despite the fact that Marta took over the reigns from Bela as national team coordinator nearly eight years ago. (Then again, to be fair, the camp makes its money off of the stuff they do for younger gymnasts, a program in which Bela is intimately involved.) Anyway, this got me thinking about how Marta’s been doing since 2000, and whether it was really important for Bela to go.

I am coincidentally rewatching the 2000 Olympic Trials right now. It’s interesting to hear Al et al. go on and on about how much everyone hates the Trials process, when in fact we are using practically the same system now.

The major differences between 2000 and 2008 are:

  • The top two from Trials are “guaranteed” spots on the team
  • There is an Olympic training camp following Trials
  • The selection committee consists of three, not four, people

Otherwise, Marta and company are free to be just as despotic about their decisions as Bela was. The important differences are not institutional, they are cultural. Firstly, it was widely thought that Bela did not implement his plan in a way that bought the affections of gymnasts’ coaches. Second, and I think more importantly (given that Marta is not exactly the most friendly and conciliatory type either), is that coaches have gotten used to the system. Yes, there was an uproar after Sydney because the system failed to deliver, but then the system itself was not replaced, and the architect of said system was replaced by the person most like him! All of this, to me, is evidence that the uproar against Bela was probably unjustified.

Moreover, the data from the resulting Olympic teams of the three quads we have experienced under this system are illuminating. Of any single Trials between 2000 and 2008, the 2000 all-around results are the best at predicting the ultimate Olympic team. Only one person was skipped in the all-around order and that was (truly sadly) Vanessa Atler. In 2004 you have to go down to 11th to find Annia Hatch and in 2008 you have to go down to 15th to find Bridget Sloan. Now, of course, the fact that specialists were much more required by the 6-3-3 format of Athens and Beijing makes the choice of fewer all-arounders more likely.

On the other hand, this does not deny the fact that ultimately the 2000 Trials probably led to a selection that few would have rejected if Sydney had not gone so poorly. A system based entirely on an athlete’s finish at Trials would have given practically the same team, replacing Dominique Dawes with Atler. It’s not clear what, in their move to remove Bela, coaches would have preferred. In any case, the opaqueness of the process may have irked them, but the outcome was probably no different from what would have resulted from the selection process they would have preferred!

Personally, Bela has always seemed like a better motivator to me. But, well, now he’s got his llamas.

Sydney:

1. Elise Ray
2. Amy Chow
3. Kristen Maloney
4. Morgan White
5. Jamie Dantzscher
6. Vanessa Atler
7. Dominique Dawes

Athens:

1. Courtney Kupets
2. Courtney McCool
3. Carly Patterson
4. Tabitha Yim
5. Allyse Ishino
6. Mohini Bhardwaj
7. Terin Humphrey
8. Tasha Schwikert
9. Carly Janiga
10. Liz Tricase
11. Annia Hatch

Beijing:

1. Shawn Johnson
2. Nastia Liukin
3. Chellsie Memmel
4. Samantha Peszek
5. Ivana Hong
6. Jana Bieger
7. Mattie Larson
8. Chelsea Davis
9. Corrie Lothrop
10. Olivia Courtney
11. Randy Stageberg
12. Alaina Johnson
13. Alicia Sacramone
14. Shayla Worley
15. Bridget Sloan

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?!).

Dong and Yang in 2000

Dong and Yang in 2000

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.