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2008 Olympics: So What If He’s Only 14?

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Other bombshell headlines that might knock me over with a feather: "Local Waffle House Fails Health Inspection." "Congressman Indicted." "Blockbuster Summer Movie A Disappointment." Now let's add "One Of Those Chinese Gymnasts Might Not Be 16 Years Old At All" to the list.

In a world where Olympic athletes must be at least 16 years old, the Associated Press is pretty sure that gymnast He Kexin is only 14, confirming what Bela Karolyi has been yammering about all this time. They say a November 3, 2007 report from Xinhua, the Chinese Govermnent's Media Agency So You Know You Can Trust Them, cited He's age as 13. The report isn't there anymore, but the AP claims they downloaded a copy of it. LexisNexis must feel like chopped liver.

The age listed on her official Olympic bio is January 1, 1992, which makes her 16 and eligible to compete in the games. That's the same age on her passport. Well, then, case closed. Except, if she is 14 like the Xinhua report said, then, well, we got ourselves a situation.

Xinhua sports editors aren't commenting on the report, while a representative of Chinese gymnastics said they got the age wrong. And even He Kexin has said she's actually 16, which in my mind is the most solid proof unless the Chinese government is forcing He to lie through her baby teeth.

As I've said before, I don't see the big deal behind the age minimum, because there's no real competitive edge to be had. Preventing people that young from competing in professional contact sports is a tremendous idea, however, because while their skills may be comparable to adults, their bodies are still developing, and should probably be only butting heads with similarly-aged opponents. In gymnastics, participants act alone, so if someone's 16, 14 … hell, 8 years old, and they're good enough to qualify, then what's the harm? We've seen a few 12-year-olds compete in LPGA tournaments. A 14-year-old won a match at Wimbledon this year. And lest us forget Emily Fox's cup stacking world record was set when she was just a ripe 15 years of age.

It's a textbook case of "a stupid rule, but still a rule." Yet something tells me no other proof to the contrary will be found, no medals will be revoked, and the IOC's officials' concerns about age manipulation will probably be left without any verifiable way to prove someone's birthdate if a country is hellbent on tweaking official documents. (Despite my blog colleague Rob Iracane's idea: "Slice 'em open and count the rings.") So hopefully the IOC doesn't try to police something that can't be proven and instead lowers the age requirement for non-contact sports.

Tune in next time for the latest expose: "Local Citizens Fed Up With Traffic."

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  • GaryCD

    Actually,

    there is a competitive advantage to have a child-like body (weight, length of limbs in proportion to body affecting torque, handling of force, etc.) Now, one could drop the minumum age of 16, making competition fair for all — but as long as there is such a rule, shouldn’t everyone, particularly a host nation, abide by it?

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    So what if someone knowingly breaks the rules to give themselves an unfair advantage and wins?

    I am guessing the IOC and the gymnastics community didn’t seek your input into the age-limit rule, nor have I heard you discuss your background in gymnastics, so how would you know if “there’s no real competitive edge to be had”?

  • http://notesfromnancy.blogspot.com NancyGail

    Matt. Look at your title a sec. You’re talking about a female athlete, but HE’s only fourteen? Other than that, nice work.

  • http://blogcritics.org/ Phillip Winn

    NancyGail, what’s her name?

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Abbott: “And her name is?”

    Costello: “He?”

    Abbott: “No, the girl.”

    Costello: “He?”

    Abbott: “No, the GIRL.”

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Just to confuse Bud and Lou (and Nancy) still further, it’s pronounced “Her”.

  • Bennett

    Yeah, but “Her’s Only 14″ sounds a bit trailer trashy.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    gadzooks, if you are going to use A&C, get it right. Costello would be asking and Abbott would be telling him.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    No, see, Abbott was the baseball manager. Costello was the gymnastics coach. And if you don’t believe that … then Bud just sounded like a pudgier name.

  • nicolas

    actually, the contact sport analogy is a better one than you think. If these girls really aren’t 16, then their bodies arent fully developed enough to handle a lot of the complicated, high impact moves and dismounts that they need to attempt to get medal-worthy scores.

    Plus, the passport excuse is flimsy, since they were issued by the same govt who decided that the girl singing the opening ceremonies wasn’t cute enough.

  • yes

    I don’t get the whole age thing. Is the minimum age different for all the sports? It just seems weird they are making such a controversy over this when there’s a 14 year old diver and nobody makes a big deal about that. So I thought the age minimum was lower but now it turns out the requirement in gymnastics is different… this is confusing

  • Liuzhou

    It’s simple. Different events have different minimum ages. Gymnastics was set at 16 after younger competitors died.

  • Eric Havaby

    And it’s not pronounced ‘her’ either

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “If these girls really aren’t 16, then their bodies arent fully developed enough to handle a lot of the complicated, high impact moves and dismounts that they need to attempt to get medal-worthy scores.”

    The Chinese womens team have already proved this statement false

  • Jordan Richardson

    Gymnastics was set at 16 after younger competitors died.

    Really?

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    Very stupid rule indeed…

  • Dreggor Gade

    As the timesonline.co.uk writes:

    “Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she won her fist Olympic gold medal in 1976. Yet despite her stardom, there were criticisms that young girls were being pushed too hard at an age when their bodies and bones were still growing, causing permanent damage…

    “There were also concerns about their mental health, because of the pressure of competing on the world stage at such a young age, and that they were vulnerable to exploitation and even physical abuse by coaches.”

    I think what people are concerned about is the fact that there are little children being mentally and physically abused, permanently damaged, for political purposes.

  • Dreggor Gade

    To rephrase:

    A sixteen year old is generally accepted as cognizant of being able to make her own decisions about her lifestyle under proper adult supervision. A sixteen year old also has a skeletal system that is fully grown enough to begin to accept the rigors necessary for the discipline of Olympic-level gymnastic sport.

    A thirteen year old’s bones are permanently damaged under that sort of rigor. Her bones will grow into malformed shapes, resulting in a broken, painful body before the age of twenty.

    Also, a child of that age is not old enough to make such important decisions about her body or lifestyle. Any adult who is making these decisions for her is by definition physically and mentally abusing the child. The adult ought to be put before a judge.

    However, that’s not how things really work in China’s gymnastic sports system. The Chinese government takes children away from their families as young as the age of four and five for “sports school.” Only a few lucky children get to see their families again about once or twice annually; most of them don’t see their families. Don’t forget that these are “one child families” in China. The children do not receive an actual formal education, just a sports education at these “sports schools.” These children are used up before the end of their teenage years without any substantive education or preparation that will help them beyond the age of 18. At that point in life, with broken bodies, damaged mental states, and no education, what do you think these poor kids will be able to do with their lives?

    Chinese gymnastics is decadent and depraved.

    As for other countries, well, a lot of them have created internal laws against that sort of horrific abuse, the sort that would put parents, coaches, and government officials in prison.

  • Steve Chan

    Stopping children from competing makes no sense in terms of _protecting_ them. To be good in nearly any competitive field be it tennis, music or what ever children start early. Doesn’t matter what country China or USA the guilty ones are the bad parents who push and burn out the ones that they should be nurturing. End of the day you can’t really enforce good parenting with band aid rules like not allowed to compete until 16.