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FIG complies with IOC, seeks more proof of Chinese gymnasts' ages

8/22/2008 - Olympic Sports

BEIJING -- China was asked to provide additional documents proving that five of the six members of its gold-medal women's gymnastics team were old enough to compete in the Beijing Olympics, in hopes it will end persistent questions about the girls' ages.

The International Olympic Committee said Friday there is still no proof anyone cheated, but it asked gymnastics officials to investigate "what have been a number of questions and apparent discrepancies," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. The International Gymnastics Federation has asked China to submit documents that will further substantiate the ages of He Kexin, Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin and Li Shanshan.

The federation said it would forward its conclusions to the IOC.

"It is in the interests of all concerned, not least the athletes themselves, to resolve this issue once and for all," the FIG said in a statement.

"We believe the matter will be put to rest and there's no question … on the eligibility," Davies said. "The information we have received seems satisfactory in terms of the correct documentation -- including birth certificates."

If the federation had found evidence that the gymnasts were underage, it could have affected four of China's six medals. In addition to the team gold and He's gold on uneven bars, Yang won bronze medals in the all-around and bars.

With the Games wrapping up Sunday, the IOC wants to quickly end any lingering doubts about underage competitors.

No one would be happier to finally have closure on the controversy than the gymnasts' parents.

China coach Lu Shanzan said the parents are "indignant" over persistent questions about their daughters' ages.

"It's not just me. The parents of our athletes are all very indignant," Lu said. "They have faced groundless suspicion. Why aren't they believed? Why are their children suspected? Their parents are very angry."

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lu said Asian gymnasts are naturally smaller than their American and European rivals.

"At this competition, the Japanese gymnasts were just as small as the Chinese," he said. "Chinese competitors have for years all been small. It is not just this time. It is a question of race. European and American athletes are all powerful, very robust. But Chinese athletes cannot be like that. They are by nature that small."

He said the governing body of gymnastics was given additional documents Thursday night to try to dispel lingering questions. Those documents included He's current and former passport, ID card and family residence permit. Lu said the documents all say she was born in 1992, which would have made her eligible to compete. Gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible.

"Surely it's not possible that these documents are still not sufficient proof of her birth date?" Lu asked. "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?

"The Chinese government and the Chinese athletes must be respected," he added.

The coach dismissed Chinese media reports and online records that suggested He, Yang and Yuyuan might be as young as 14.

"If you trust every Web site but not a government …" he said, "there are so many Web sites, so much hearsay. These are not official. It is possible that all news on the Internet is accurate?"

The federation has said repeatedly that a passport is the "accepted proof of a gymnast's eligibility," and that China's gymnasts have presented ones that show they are age eligible. The IOC also checked the girls' passports and deemed them valid before the games began.

Andre Gueisbuhler, secretary general of the FIG, said the federation would release a statement later Friday.

"For the time being, there is nothing I can add," Gueisbuhler said.

Neither the IOC nor the FIG gave details on what new information prompted the IOC to act now, three days after the gymnastics competition ended.

"With some questions still remaining, we asked the federation to take a closer look," Davies said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee said it sent a letter to the IOC and the FIG on Friday, asking that the matter be resolved.

"We certainly believe that it's important for the IOC and the international federation to review the issue and hopefully lay it to rest because the questions surrounding the age of some of the athletes have been out there for quite a while and it's unfair to them and unfair to the other athletes to continue to linger," USOC chief executive Jim Scherr said.

"So we have sent a letter to the IOC and to the international federation asking them to review the matter and see if they can't resolve it for the good of the competition, the integrity of the competition and the good of all the athletes."

Media reports include a Nov. 3 story by the Chinese government's news agency, Xinhua, that suggest He is only 14. Asked again earlier this week about her age after she won the uneven bars title, beating American Nastia Liukin in a tiebreak, He said,
"I was born in 1992, and I'm 16 years old now. The FIG has proved that. If I'm under 16, I couldn't have been competing here."

An investigation was triggered when a computer analyst from the U.S. claimed to have discovered Chinese government documents that prove He is 14 -- making her ineligible to compete in the Olympics, The Times of London reported.

Mike Walker, a computer security analyst, told The Times he found two documents he claims had been removed from a Chinese government Web site. The documents, he said, state He's birthday is Jan. 1, 1994 -- not Jan. 1, 1992, which is printed in her passport.

Earlier this month, the AP found registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China that showed both He and Yang were too young to compete. He was born Jan. 1, 1994, according to the 2005, 2006 and 2007 registration lists. Yang was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists. In the 2007 registration list, however, her birthday is listed as Aug. 26, 1992.

"We played fair at this Olympic Games," Liukin's father and coach, Valeri, said after they arrived back in the United States. "… If somebody cheated, shame on them."

Added Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics: "USA Gymnastics has always believed this issue needed to be addressed by the FIG and IOC. An investigation would help bring closure to the issue and remove any cloud of speculation from this competition."

Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s, when the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 to protect young athletes from serious injuries. The minimum age was raised to its current 16 in 1997. Younger gymnasts are considered to have an advantage because they are more flexible and are likely to have an easier time doing the tough skills the sport requires. They also aren't as likely to have a history of injuries or fear of failure.

North Korea was barred from the 1993 world championships after FIG officials discovered Kim Gwang Suk, the gold medalist on uneven bars in 1991, was listed as 15 for three years in a row. Romania admitted in 2002 that several gymnasts' ages had been falsified, including those of Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu.

Even China's own Yang Yun, a double bronze medalist in Sydney, said during an interview aired on state broadcaster China Central Television that she was 14 during the 2000 Games.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.