The Amazing Chinese Mini-Gymnasts
If one has been following the Olympics, especially in the gymnastic competition, it is hard to ignore the domination of the Chinese athletes this year. The men have been very strong, winning gold in almost every event along with the team championship. The Chinese women have been exemplary themselves, racking up a good collection of medals including the gold in the team competition. As one watches these girls as they catapult their little bodies through space, it is even more amazing that someone looking so young can do such spectacular maneuvers.
As much as it is impressive, here also lies the problem. The age requirement for women's gymnastics is currently a minimum of 16. There are many reasons for this, some of which are discussed here:
In the 1970s, the average age of Olympic gymnastics competitors began to gradually decrease. While it was not unheard of to for teenagers to compete in the 1960s — Ludmilla Tourischeva was sixteen at her first Olympics in 1968 — they slowly became the norm, as difficulty in gymnastics increased. Smaller, lighter girls generally excelled in the more challenging acrobatic elements required by the redesigned Code of Points. The 58th Congress of the FIG, held in July 1980, just before the Olympics, decided to raise the minimum age limit for major international senior competition from fourteen to fifteen. The change, which came into effect two years later, didn't eliminate the problem. By the time the 1992 Olympics rolled around, elite competitors consisted almost exclusively of "pixies" — underweight, prepubertal teenagers — and concerns were raised about athlete welfare.
The FIG responded to this trend by raising the minimum age requirement for international elite competition to sixteen in 1997. This, combined with changes in the Code of Points and evolving popular opinion in the sport, have seen older gymnasts return to competition. While the average elite female gymnast is still in her middle to late teens and of below-average height and weight, it is also common to see gymnasts competing well into their twenties. At the 2005 World Championships in Melbourne, the silver medalist on vault, Oksana Chusovitina, was a thirty-year old mother, and she received another silver medal on vault at the 2008 Olympics at the age of 33. At the 2004 Olympics, both the second place American team and the third placed Russians were captained by women in their mid twenties; several other teams, including Australia, France and Canada, had many older gymnasts.
There has been much speculation that China's team has a few girls which no not meet this age requirement.
Here is a good summary article by Sports Illustrated on the controversy:
SI.com: What is the consensus among the world's gymnastics journalists regarding the Chinese female gymnasts?
Swift: The consensus of those I have talked to is that at least two, three or maybe as many as four are younger than 16. If they are not younger than 16, then they are sick and in danger. There is a 68-pound girl (Deng Linlin) on that team is claiming to be 16 years old. That is not a healthy body. If she is 16 and weighs 68 pounds, someone ought to put her in a hospital. The Romanians, the Russians and the Americans all look age appropriate. The only country that apparently is cheating is China.
I have a few ideas why the IoC is doing nothing about this situation, but I'm interested in hearing what some others may think.