Too Young to Compete in the Olympics?

A look at the age controversy brewing in Chinese gymnastics.

February 18, 2009, 3:17 PM

BEIJING, China, July 28. 2008 —, 2008 -- Controversy and excitement just won't stop brewing in Beijing, where questions were raised this weekend about the eligibility of two of China's top female gymnasts, just two days after the country named its largest Olympic team in history 11 days before the Olympic opening ceremonies.

A Sunday report in the New York Times mirrored stories that have appeared in the Chinese media over the last several months that cast doubt on the ages of Chinese gymnasts He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan.

Under a rule instituted in 1997, gymnasts must turn 16 during the 2008 calendar year to be eligible for the 2008 Olympics.

Officials with the Federation of International Gymnastics (FIG) said doubts about gymnast He's age had been raised by Chinese news media reports, USA Gymnastics and fans. But Chinese authorities claim to have passport information demonstrating that He is indeed 16.

According to copies of passports obtained by ABC News, He Kexin was born on Jan. 1, 1992, and fellow Chinese gymnast Jiang Yuyuan's birthdate is listed on her passport as Nov. 1, 1991, making both of them indeed eligible for this year's games.

But there are a suspiciously high number of reports that put He's and Jiang's ages into question. A report on the Chinese-language Web site said He Kexin was 13 years old in November 2007, too young to compete in the Olympics this year.

In a May 23 article, the China Daily stated that He was 13 as well. Three days later, the official state newspaper issued a correction that said she was in fact 16.

Some Chinese have chalked the controversy up to reporters' human error in their stories. While reporters are bound to make mistakes now and then, research by ABC News suggests that this controversy could be more than just a typo or two.

He Kexin debuted on the international stage this year, winning the gold medal in uneven bars at major international events in Doha, Qatar and Cottbus, Germany. In a YouTube video of He Kexin performing in Doha, the sports announcer broadcasted, in Arabic, that He was 14 years old.

In 2007, He competed in a domestic competition in Chengdu, where her birthdate is listed as "1994.1.1" on an official roster of Chinese gymnasts.

When He splashed onto the international stage this year, the online community in China started buzzing about her age. Message boards raised doubt about He's age. A blog on Baidu, the country's most popular search engine and Web portal, was a typical example. The English is translated from the original Chinese below:

Post 1: "We all hope that He Kexin can compete at the Olympics, but it seems as if she's not quite old enough…."

Reply 1: "In China, age is never a problem."

Reply 2: "Age is definitely not a problem, in the national sports system, results are the most important. In America, age might be a problem, but there's no way the Chinese team is that stupid…."

In a phone interview with, anthropologist and Chinese Olympic sports expert Susan Brownell said that the He and Jiang age concerns could very well be founded. She explained that there is a history of underage gymnasts. In a country like China, Brownell said, it is fairly easy to change the age of athletes.

The Chinese Federation for Gymnastics did not respond to a request for comment.

In the end, we may never know the athletes' true ages. The Federation of International Gymnastics received copies of He's and Jiang's official passports and those documents will stand until proven incorrect.

This isn't the first time China has been investigated for age validity. Ironically, He Kexin's signature uneven bars release move is named after Li Ya, a Chinese gymnast whose birthday was also reportedly changed in order for her to compete at the world championships five years ago in Anaheim.

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