Aug. 12, 2008 — -- When the Chinese women's gymnastics team flipped and tumbled its way to a first-place position in preliminaries Monday night, some were surprised at how young and pint-size the girls on the team looked.
According to Olympic rules, athletes must be 16 years old to compete. But critics have questioned whether the Chinese competitors, who are on average 3.5 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than their American counterparts, are eligible for the competition. The numbers are more astonishing when compared with those of America's top gymnast, Shawn Johnson, who stands 4 feet 9 inches tall and weighs 90 pounds.
"Critics are saying that the Chinese may have made up the ages and the birthdays on the passports," said ABC News consultant Christine Brennan.
Chinese officials have provided passports as proof of the girls' ages, but last month reporters found online documents from competitions that listed the ages of three of China's gymnasts as 14.
Yang Yilin, for instance, was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China.
But on the 2007 registration list Yang's birthday is listed as Aug. 26, 1992, making her eligible to compete.
Similar concerns have already been raised about the ages of He Kexin, a gold-medal favorite on uneven bars, and Jiang Yuyuan. On the Web site of the Chengdu Sports Bureau, a file dated January 2006 indicates He Kexin was born Jan. 1, 1994.
These documents have been pulled offline and are no longer available.
Still, the International Olympic Committee said there will be no investigation to verify the girls' ages.
"To our understanding, both sides have cleared up this matter," Giselle Davies, an IOC spokeswoman, referring to the Federation Internationale de Gymnastique and China's Olympic committee. "We feel comfortable having heard feedback from people directly involved with the athletes."
"As long as the passport ages are the same as in the past as today, there is no reason for the FIG to take any action," Andre Gueisbuhler, the secretary general, said.
Officials with the Chinese Gymnastics Association said that they had applied for passports for all the athletes, and that photocopies of He and Jiang's passports, issued in July 2007 and March 2006, indicate they are both over 16.
"To say you're lying about your passports, that's just not gonna happen. That would create a huge international incident," Brennan said. "But the reality is we'll never know for sure."
This controversy isn't the first time the international games have dealt with age falsification claims, which have often been a problem, especially in Communist countries.
During the 1990s, there was a North Korean gymnast who was listed as 15 years old ... every year for three years straight.
The International Gymnastics Federation said it will start issuing licenses to gymnasts next year, and every gymnast is going to need a license to compete, even in junior events.
While there may be no way to formally confirm the girls' ages from an outside source, forensics may be able to give an approximation.
"These little gymnasts have the heads of 10- or 11-year-olds," said forensic artist Lois Gibson, who studies the ratios of a face to determine a person's age. "All of those children I saw — their chins were really too small. But if you disregard that, they still have ears the size of someone who is maybe 10, 11 or 12."
Typically, half of a baby's face is from the eyes down to the chin, but as a person grows older the space elongates.
In addition to studying their face ratios, Gibson also looked at the gymnasts' irises. In a baby, the iris makes up 100 percent of the eye opening, but as you get older it drops to about 50 percent, egardless of nationality.
"These children even have larger iris ratios to the eye opening," Gibson said of the women on the team. "They appear to be far under 16."
The age limit of gymnasts was set during the late 1990s to protect the youngest athletes from overtraining and stunting their body growth.
But some coaches and gymnasts believe the limit should be lifted because gymnasts peak younger than other athletes.
"When I was 14 years old, obviously, I was able to flip around more and do things a little better [than] when I was older," said U.S. Olympic champion Dominique Moceanu, who was 14 years old when she nabbed a team gold medal at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.
That's the same age famed tumblers Nadia Comaneci and Kari Strug were when they struck Olympic gold.
"Put the best team out there, and let the U.S. and Chinese compete for Olympic gold," Moceanu said.