Inquiry under way into age of Chinese gymnastic champs

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 22, 2008 

BEIJING — BEIJING - Faced with growing doubts about the ages of medal-winning Chinese women gymnasts, the International Olympic Committee has asked the leading international gymnastics body to look into whether the Chinese athletes were in fact too young to compete this month.

Press reports, including one in Friday's Times in the United Kingdom, have accused the Chinese government of hiding documents that would have barred women gymnasts such as He Kexin, who won two gold medals in Beijing, from taking part in the games.

Olympic committee rules require gymnasts to turn 16 in an Olympic year, and passports and other documentation provided by Chinese sporting officials have showed the Chinese gymnasts meet the age requirement.

The Times story, however, said a U.S. computer expert Mike Walker found two documents that had been removed from a Chinese government Web site showing He was only 14 years old.

U.S. news reporters have also found Chinese State General Administration of Sport records and government media accounts indicating gymnasts He, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan were underage.

IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said the committee requested the new inquiry after receiving new information but declined to detail what the new information was. The International Gymnastics Federation had said it planned to announce the results of its inquiry by the end of the day Friday, Moreau said. The IOC had not announced anything by 2 a.m. Saturday.

"We received information that was concerning enough for us to ask the federation to look at this more," Moreau said. "We received information that showed some sort of discrepancy."

The Chinese women gymnasts won six medals in total this month, including two gold medals. He narrowly beat out U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin in a tiebreaker in the uneven bars to win a gold medal. The Chinese women gymnasts also won a team gold medal, while the U.S. gymnasts won a silver medal in that event.

If the allegations are confirmed, the IOC could strip the Chinese gymnasts of their medals, giving the United States an additional two gold medals.

U.S. coach Martha Karolyi has long suggested that He was too young to compete, and the U.S. gymnastics team called for an investigation into the matter Friday.

"USA Gymnastics has always believed this issue needed to be addressed by the (International Gymnastics Federation) and IOC," said Steve Penny, president of U.S. gymnastics team in a statement. "An investigation would help bring closure to the issue and remove any cloud of speculation from this competition."

Giselle Davies, the IOC's communications chief, downplayed the inquiry, saying the gymnastics federation had already received documents such as birth certificates showing the gymnasts met the age requirement. Davies would not specify how many gymnasts or which of them were under scrutiny.

"We're received some information which puts the matter to rest," Davies told reporters. "There's no question from our perspective."

Davies said the international federation was working with the Chinese national gymnastics federation to bring the issue to a close. Olympic officials often use passports to determine athletes' age eligibilities and had been satisfied with the Chinese gymnasts' documents, she said.

Wang Wei, executive vice president of the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, said the Chinese delegation had submitted enough evidence proving its gymnasts were old enough to compete.

"If (the gymnasts) hadn't been cleared, they wouldn't have participated in the games," Wang said.

The women gymnasts' coach, Lu Shanzhen, lashed out at foreign reporters Friday for pursuing the issue. He told The Associated Press the Chinese team presented more documentation Thursday, including a passport, identity card and family residence permit, showing He was 16.

"Surely it's not possible that these documents are still not sufficient proof of her birthdate?" Lu told The Associated Press. "The passports were issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The identity card was issued by China's Ministry of Public Security. If these valid documents are not enough to clarify this problem, then what will you believe?"

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