Athleticism Almost Trumped by Skepticism

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, August 14, 2008


Women's gymnastics at the Olympics always lifts or breaks your heart. On Wednesday, it did both. Few athletes in the world can make you catch your breath in disbelief or define the line of human beauty more powerfully than Americans Shawn Johnson on the balance beam or Nastia Liukin on the uneven bars, or Chinese captain Cheng Fei on the vault.

But if it's tears you want, the kind you feel inside when you see a small girl in glittery makeup trying to pretend she's 16 -- and eligible for the Olympics -- when she may only be 14, then National Indoor Stadium was the place to come for that emotion, too.

Wednesday, in China's hour of national triumph after winning its first Olympic gold medal in women's team gymnastics over the arch-rival United States, He Kexin said defiantly: "My real age is 16. I don't care what other people say. That's none of my business. I want people to know that 16 is my real age."

So tell us, a reporter asked coyly, what did you do to celebrate your 15th birthday? It must have been so memorable. "I was with my team. It was an ordinary day. We just celebrate with our teammates," He said, levelly.

Next to He, accepting praise, was Jiang Yuyuan, an amazing uneven-bar performer. Both looked extremely young despite thick makeup, sparkles and fairly sophisticated hairstyles. Their passports, issued by China, say they were born in 1992 -- just in time to be eligible. But records posted on official Web sites in China, which were dug up by Western journalists, said that both girls are just 14. (The Web sites, and parts of an online message board discussing the age issue, were taken down shortly after the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on them last month.)

If their passports are right, then a world of praise is being denied this duo. Bela Karolyi, former Olympic coach and publicity hound, harangues them on TV, insisting they are underage. His wife Martha, the U.S. team coordinator, says sly things, trying to throw them under her gag-in-the-clutch American bus.

"I have no proof. So much talk. Could be because one little girl has a missing tooth," said Martha, hinting at a lost baby tooth. "If it's true, it's totally unfair. Certain countries go by rules and certain countries may not."

This Chinese duo is typical of a sports world in which a baseball slugger's steroids have blended into a cyclist's EPO and a sprinter's human growth hormone until it makes us wonder about the passports of children.

Yet the bitterest tears of all belong to an undeserving victim -- U.S. gymnastics team captain Alicia Sacramone, who bombed on the last two events Wednesday, falling off the balance beam, then tumbling on her rump in floor exercise, a discipline in which she was world champion in 2005. Her scores demolished the United States' slim chances for a comeback.

Sacramone has lots of disadvantages. She's 20, grown, smart, goes to Brown and is old enough to know what's at stake. All are nightmares to a gymnast. Better to be young, limber, oblivious and fearless.

As Sacramone sat, slightly separate from her teammates, watching the elfin Chinese suspects fly around the uneven bars, running up astronomical scores to give China a substantial 1.125-point lead, she fiddled with her nails and fidgeted.

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