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This 'Inquiry' Falls Flat

By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, August 23, 2008

BEIJING

Everyone is playing sleuth over whether China cheated in women's gymnastics. The hope is that the officials who govern Olympic competition will conduct a straightforward investigation, but regrettably, such a thing seems to have been beyond their scope and spine at this point. Who are you going to believe, the Chinese government, or the Chinese government? The authorities at the Beijing Games have considered the question, and for the moment have decided to believe the Chinese government.

A stack of available documentation shows that China apparently altered the ages of some of its female gymnasts, who won six medals here, including the team event. According to government forms dug up by a variety of media outlets as well as a resourceful Web expert, double gold medalist He Kexin is only 14, and therefore ineligible. On the other hand, according to her most recent Chinese passport and a copy of a birth certificate, she is 16. This is an admittedly difficult situation to arbitrate, but isn't that what sports federations and the International Olympic Committee are supposed to be here for? As opposed to visiting the hospitality buffets?

Even in the best possible interpretation of events -- set aside your suspicions of whitewashing and collusion, and give everyone, including the blameless gymnasts, the benefit of the doubt -- Olympic officials engaged in a head swiveling process on Friday that left everyone confused and no one satisfied. First, the IOC requested that the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) conduct an "inquiry" into the ages of the Chinese girls because "of a number of questions and apparent discrepancies," according to IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies. Just a short time later, after expressions of indignation by Chinese coaches and officials, and before FIG had so much as issued a statement, the IOC announced itself satisfied that there was no wrongdoing. Huh? It was like a jury reaching a verdict during opening statements. Then, FIG announced late Friday evening that it had requested additional documentation on the ages of five Chinese gymnasts from the Chinese Gymnastic Association. The one thing we couldn't find in all of this intrigue was transparency.

The first significant evidence that Chinese gymnasts might be below the age requirement of 16 surfaced long before the Olympics ever began. And yet FIG and the IOC failed to do even basic due diligence until a day ago. Last month the Associated Press found registration lists on the General Administration of Sport of China Web site that clearly showed both He and Yang Yilin 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. But on the 2007 registration list, her birthday changed to Aug. 26, 1992.

Two days ago, a Web security expert named Mike Walker, who goes by the blogging name of Stryde Hax, ran a fairly basic search on a Chinese engine and recovered two documents that had been deleted from a Chinese government Web site. Both showed He's age to be 14.

What's so wrong with putting underage gymnasts on the floor? It's the rare sport in which extreme youth is a clear advantage. Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she scored perfect 10s and won her five gold medals for Romania in 1976, before the age requirement was raised in the interest of protecting the health of the athletes. Younger athletes are more flexible, don't yet fight their center of gravity and can throw their bodies through the air almost weightlessly. He, just 4 feet 8 and 73 pounds, soared through the air with the ease of a small bird.

Falsifying athletes' ages is not new in gymnastics, and a good case can be made that the rule ought to be abolished because it's all but impossible to enforce. But for the time being it's in place, and the fact is, not everybody breaks it. Four years ago the United States' best gymnast was young Nastia Liukin, but because she did not turn 16 in the 2004 calendar year, she was ineligible for the Athens Games.

A larger question is whether the IOC is genuinely trying to govern in these Olympics, or whether it has become a mere bag man for Chinese organizers and corporate sponsors. It's hardly without precedent for a state to cheat, or for a sports federation like FIG to fail in its oversight or fold under pressure from a host government. The worst example was the outrageous Soviet medal-fixing in track and field at the 1980 Moscow Games. According to eyewitness James Dunaway, a journalist who was one of the few Americans in Moscow, Soviets officials cheated opponents out of five gold medals. They insisted that IAAF representatives leave the field, and then used their own people to officiate events, raking the sand in the jumping pits to erase marks, and altering the distances of throws. In the triple jump, world record holder Joao Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil and his chief rival, Ian Campbell of Australia, were called for nine fouls in 12 attempts, while the USSR's Jaak Uudmäe took the gold with an inferior jump.

The IOC has consistently rationalized its inaction in the Beijing gymnastics controversy by claiming that enforcement is not its job. But Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, author of the encyclopedic "The Complete Book of the Olympics," points out that the IOC can step in on an ethical matter when it chooses to. Before these Games began, the IOC unilaterally declared Greek sprinter Ekaterina Thanou ineligible for a pattern of doping offenses, declaring she was too disreputable to compete, even though she had served out her penalty and was considered eligible by the track and field federation.

"There is precedent for the IOC to overrule a situation," Wallechinsky says.

To Wallechinsky, the Chinese appear to have committed "an obvious violation," especially given the mounting evidence in the case of He. Wallechinsky wonders why the IOC couldn't perform some basic shoe-leather detective work. "If it was me I'd be sending an investigative team out to her village and town, going to her neighbors, her primary school," he said. "But I'm not the head of the IOC."

Instead, the "inquiry" remains uncomfortably incomplete and apparently reliant on documents provided by the very people accused of cheating, the Chinese state. Even if the gymnasts receive absolution, we won't know whether to believe it.

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