Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Chinese Women Gymnasts Underage?

UPDATE: After a thorough investigation by the FIG, the Chinese 2008 women's gymnastics team has now been officially cleared and declared of age, no doubt in part due to some of the evidence mentioned in the original post below.


You probably know that the Chinese "women" gymnasts won the gold medal in the Beijing team gymnastics event. Good for them, but there's a lot of talk about at least half the team being underage. At these Olympics, that's defined as reaching less than 16 years of age during 2008 (in other words, a gymnast can be 15 right now).

During the team event, much of the talk centered on Deng Linlin, who's in front in the photo above. Martha Karolyi, coach of the US team, even suggested she had recently lost a baby tooth.

I watched and I saw that too, but I didn't think she was actually missing a tooth - it just seemed like one of her teeth was pushed back behind her other teeth. Cosmetic orthodonture is not as common in Asia as it is here - in fact, in some countries (and I'm not sure if China is one of them), this look on girls or women of any age is considered cute. (The Japanese call it "yaeba", meaning double-tooth, and it's a good thing.) So I don't know if this is proof of anything.

(By the way, Karolyi could only have been talking about Deng Linlin, but the press usually mentions only He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin as being under suspicion - so somebody is clearly confused.)

UPDATE: A couple of documents from a single competition have now been found by a determined self-described "hacker" going by the name "Stryde Hax". It's interesting to note that these documents only show He Kexin as underage. Even if they're true and accurate, does that mean an apology is in order for Deng Linlin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin? This is the most incriminating dirt that anyone's been able to dig up and it applies to only one of the four gymnasts.

The FIG apparently now has birth certificates, school records (including class photos) and family registries for all of the Chinese gymnasts in their possession, and they show the ages of all of them as at least 16. Could these documents have been faked? It's very difficult even for the government to do such a thing. To understand why, you need to understand how what a "family registry" is - this is not something we have in the west.

A family registry is a running document that contains every major family event through the generations. It's a system that has been in use for more than 1,000 years, and these documents are considered both sacred (because they contain an entire family history) and basically bulletproof (because they are seen by so many people). For example, He Kexin's birth date would be seen by somebody arranging a marriage for her sister. Copies of these registries would be kept in a bunch of different places, many of which have nothing to do with the government or even He Kexin. Even if all of the families and their friends and relatives cooperated in falsifying these documents, there would still be old copies of them floating around in doctors and dentists' offices, at bridal houses, at mortuaries, etc.

I think it's actually more likely that the Chinese are telling the truth in that one set of paperwork got screwed up during a team transfer. Occam's razor applies. Think about it - does it make more sense to think that somebody made a mistake entering a set of dates on a team roster, or that there's a massive conspiracy among the government, the extended families and friends of all these athletes, and all the organizations and businesses they've ever dealt with on a family issue to falsify a living document that is probably hundreds of years old?

In other words, between a family registry and a team roster, the family registry carries a hell of a lot more weight. Sometimes conspiracy theories are true, but there's a reason most of us think of conspiracy theorists as crackpots.

Some more general thoughts.

During broadcasts, NBC's Al Trautwig said repeatedly to look at the girls and "judge for yourself", which I think is a dangerous thing to do.

Deng Linlin is only an inch or two shorter than American Shawn Johnson, for one thing, and Americans are just plain taller than Chinese on average. (The two are separated in the above photo only by the official holding the sign.) And gymnasts often have their growth stunted in various ways anyway (not that I condone that). The other Chinese gymnasts are as tall or taller than Johnson. So what does this tell us? Nothing.

There is the question of whether there should even be age limits - Nadia Comaneci won her first gold when she was 14 - but that's not the issue as long as everybody knows what the rules are. And they do.

The New York Times went so far as to say the Chinese must be too young because they're not curvaceous like the Americans. That struck me as misogynistic at least, not to mention nonsensical and vaguely racist. It's like saying Chinese swimmers must be cheating because Michael Phelps has a bigger penis. Not one of the Times' finer moments. (Sports Illustrated has since made the same ridiculous argument.) The Chinese retorted that the Americans are much more muscular, so they must be doping, right? The point is it's neither accurate nor fair to make these judgments on appearance. Especially when it's westerners judging Asians (or the reverse). We need real evidence.

For example, how old is the girl on the left?

That's 4'7", 74 pound, 16 year old Koko Tsurumi of Japan. She's the same size as Deng Linlin and her face looks even younger. She's competing at these same Olympics, and nobody has yet questioned her age. Why the inconsistency?

You just cannot tell a person's age - especially not a person of a different race, culture and nationality - by looks alone. You'd think a lot of the people saying otherwise had never seen an Asian girl before. (My bet is a lot of them haven't.)

One thing is for sure - if the Chinese team is proven underage, then we should demand their medal be stripped. The American girls made a lot of mistakes at the wrong times, but rules are rules. If it's true, then the gold medalists won by cheating. You don't just roll over for that.

If, on the other hand, *any* of the four girls who have been accused by the media, Martha Karolyi or anyone else is not proven underage, then they deserve an apology. Accusing someone of cheating when they won fair and square is just bad sportsmanship. And it's looking more and more likely that that's the case.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous7:14 PM


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP