More Documents Sought in Effort To Verify Ages

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008; Page E12

BEIJING, Aug. 22 -- In an effort to resolve lingering questions about whether China's female gymnasts were eligible for the Beijing Olympics, the sport's governing body asked the Chinese Gymnastic Association on Friday to submit more documents verifying the age of five of its squad's six members.

Those athletes -- He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan, Li Shanshan, Deng Linlin and Yang Yilin -- contributed to four of the six medals won by China's female gymnasts.

The action represents a departure for the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), whose president has insisted throughout the Games that the governing body had no need or responsibility to go beyond an athlete's passport data to verify that a gymnast met the sport's minimum-age requirements.

But pressure for FIG to take a more assertive stance grew amid new media reports that several Chinese gymnasts are 14 rather than 16. A spokeswoman for the International Olympic Committee confirmed Friday that the IOC had asked FIG to examine the discrepancies in hopes of putting the controversy to rest.

Also Friday, Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the USOC sent a letter to the IOC requesting that it "expeditiously resolve" the issue.

"We believe in fairness for all athletes," Scherr said in a news conference Friday. "And the IOC and [FIG] should take measures to make sure the issue is put to rest one way or another. We believe the IOC is moving in that direction. We hope they follow through and hope for a quick resolution."

Nonetheless, it's doubtful any information supplied by the Chinese Gymnastics Association will undercut its claim that its gymnasts meet the sport's age requirements and, in turn, lead to a revocation of any medals won in Beijing.

Most of the questions center on He, who helped the Chinese women to their first Olympic team gold in history and edged American Nastia Liukin for the individual gold on the uneven bars.

According to her passport, He is 16. But media reports have cited documents from provincial competitions that list her birthday as Jan. 1, 1994, rather than Jan. 1, 1992, which would make her 14.

"You shouldn't regard this as some kind of formal investigation," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said at a news conference Friday. "Simply there have been questions on the table and discrepancies alluded to. . . . The IOC simply wants to do due diligence and work with the international federation to 100 percent clarify this situation and put it to rest."

Under a policy adopted by FIG in 1997, gymnasts must turn 16 during the calendar year of an Olympic Games in order to compete. Because of that rule, Liukin, then 14, couldn't compete in the 2004 Athens Games although she was sufficiently skilled.

Before 1981, FIG had no minimum age for gymnasts. Among the beneficiaries was a 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci, who scored the sport's first perfect 10 and won five Olympic medals, including three golds, at the 1976 Games.

A 15-year-old age minimum was instituted in 1981 over concern that particularly young gymnasts were too vulnerable, both physically and psychologically, to withstand the rigor of international competition.

According to gymnastics insiders, efforts to skirt that rule followed almost immediately in countries such as Romania and Russia, where the sport has traditionally been a source of international pride and identity.

China is the latest to stand accused, but its officials insist the allegations are bogus.

"These documents already have been clarified . . . ," said Wang Wei, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee. "The eligibility of the athletes has already been investigated and cleared by the international federation."

When queried by journalists during the Games, He, the gymnast, defended herself resolutely.

"My real age is 16," He said after her victory on the uneven bars competition, which was determined by a tiebreak. "I was born in 1992. The FIG has also proved I'm 16. If I'm not qualified, I won't be here."

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