China punishment revives age rule debate
Beijing: In a sport where most athletes are past their prime by the time they turn 20, the minimum age rule has once again split the gymnastics community after China were stripped of their 2000 Olympics bronze medal.
An International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) probe found that Dong Fangxiao falsified her birthdate for the 2000 Games, and was hence younger than the minimum permitted age of 16, after registering different ages at Sydney and at the Beijing Games eight years later.
While the United States, who were named as the bronze medallists in the 2000 women`s team competition this week after China were disqualified, were delighted with the FIG`s decision, others believe the Asian nation should not have been punished and that the minimum age rule should be scrapped.
"I am very sorry for the Chinese team who have to support such a strict penalty. I think the gymnasts are not guilty at all," Romanian coach Nicolae Forminte told reporters at the European championships in Birmingham, England, which ended on Sunday.
"In my opinion it should be some other person who has to pay."
Glancing at one of his senior charges, who sat next to him with her legs swinging and feet failing to touch the floor from the height of her chair, he added: "For me the age is not a problem, that will be decided by FIG and I will conform with this if it is 16, 17, 19."
"I don`t think there is a big difference between a 15-year-old gymnast and a 20-year-old. What matters is the quality of the gymnast. But I don`t think in the future there will be many gymnasts older than 20 because gymnastics is very hard at this age."
At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci wowed the world with her gravity-defying tricks to become the first gymnast to earn perfect 10s but the FIG subsequently raised the minimum age to 16 to protect the health of athletes.
With gymnasts having a very short shelf life at the top and with many reaching their prime by their mid-teens, some coaches feel that individual athletes and their minders should have a right to decide when they are ready to compete at the major events.
"It is better to start at 14. It is really hard to stay under pressure so long," Russian national coach Alexander Alexandrov said.
"At the end they have to think about their future, about education, so perhaps it is better for them to do it earlier rather than later."
Suspicions of age-faking have dogged Chinese sport for years.
Dong registered a Jan. 20, 1983 birthdate in Sydney, but when accredited to act as an official in the vault at the 2008 Beijing Games, she declared her birthdate as Jan. 23, 1986.
That would have made her 14 and ineligible to compete in Sydney.
During the 2008 Olympics, the FIG was ordered by the IOC to investigate the age of China`s He Kexin, the women`s team and asymmetric bars gold medallist, and several team mates, who were all declared eligible.
Following that controversy, the FIG introduced a system where all gymnasts taking part in any major event must apply for a licence and where gymnasts must register their birthdate at the start of their junior career.
However, not everyone thinks the "gymnastics passport" will be foolproof.
"I think if your passport is false you can get a false licence too, so I don`t know if that is the solution," Dutch gymnast Mayra Kroonen said.
Russia`s Alexandrov added: "I believe it will be very difficult to control the Chinese gymnasts in the system."
At 21, Kroonen is almost viewed as a pensioner in the sport but put her retirement on hold to compete in Birmingham. She felt the minimum age should be raised to 17 or 18 as fans needed to see "real women and not girls" compete in gymnastics.
Laura Mitchell, a 15-year-old Briton, competing as a junior at the Europeans is thankful there is an age limit.
"The limit is quite fair. I`m not that disappointed (about not competing with the seniors) because I still got a chance to compete in this big arena and it gave me a taste of what`s to come," she told reporters after watching the senior women`s team final.