- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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BEIJING -- It doesn't take a whole lot to fire up Bela Karolyi.
Those who've watched the Romanian-born gymnastics coach stalk the sidelines of Olympic competitions will attest to that fact. But one topic had him particularly heated as he watched warm-ups before the women's gymnastics qualifiers Sunday afternoon at National Indoor Stadium: the Olympic age limit imposed in 1997. Karolyi wants the requirement done away with because, he says, it robs athletes of some of their best years of competition, robs the fans of many talented gymnasts and, most importantly, encourages cheating.
At the Beijing test event in December, International Federation of Gymnastics president Bruno Grandi said he was looking into adopting the 16-year-old minimum age limit for all international competition post-Beijing, something that would change competition drastically. Had that rule been adopted a year ago, Shawn Johnson would have been too young to compete at the 2007 world championships in Stuttgart, Germany, where she won three gold medals at age 15.
"Four years ago, Nastia Liukin missed the Olympic cutoff date by two months," Karolyi said. "She had the talent to be here, but she had to go through the pain and sorrow of waiting four years. There are U.S. junior champions who have the talent to be here, but can't."
Had an age limit been imposed in 1992, Shannon Miller would not have competed on her first Olympic team. Another of Karolyi's protégés, Nadia Comaneci, would have been too young for the 1976 squad. Comaneci was 14 when she scored the sport's first perfect 10, one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history and the standard by which gymnasts were judged for 30 years.
"The age limit is unfair," Karolyi said. "It is nonsense. Whoever has the maturity and talent to compete at this level should be here."
Or, he suggests, the Olympics should create two divisions, one for juniors and one for seniors. That could discourage the cheating he says has gone on since the early '80s, when Romanians and Russians began falsifying passports and birth records in order to field young athletes.
"Since they forced the age limit higher and higher, there has been cheating. The FIG is running away. They set the limit, but they don't want to enforce it," he said, referring to an inquiry made in July into the ages of Chinese gymnasts He Kexin, Yang Yilin and Jiang Yuyuan after several reports from online outlets and The New York Times pegged their ages much younger than 16. That is not surprising, given that the average size of the six-member Chinese team is 4-foot-9 and 77 pounds (that's 13 pounds lighter than Johnson, who is also 4-foot-9), and gymnast Deng Linlin doesn't even break the 70-pound mark.
"The same thing happened in 2000 with China," Karolyi said. "They had an athlete who looked too young. We checked and found she had competed in a junior competition six months earlier at the age of 13. How had she aged three years in six months? We had the document. FIG knows this goes on."
FIG said the issue with the Chinese team has been cleared up, as the athletes provided copies of their passports, which confirm their ages as 16.
That, too, is "a joke," Karolyi said. "Countries have been falsifying documents for years," he said. "They think we are stupid. We are in gymnastics, too. We know. What arrogance these people have, thinking everyone in this arena is stupid. These girls are half-people. You don't have to be a gymnastics coach to know what a kid looks like at 11 or 12, or 16 and 17. You have only to be a good mom or dad to know that."
But the fact that these girls are here competing, and competing well, proves they belong at an international event.
The window in this sport is very small, and a 16-year-old age minimum closes the window for much of that time. Many gymnasts choose to leave the sport at 16 or 17, as the toll it takes on their bodies wears on them. Now, for narrow misses like Liukin, that is not an option. She had Olympic dreams, so she had no choice but to stick around until she was 19.
"They have got to come up with a solution," Karolyi said. "I look around, and all I see is cheating."
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.