International Olympic Committee Investigates Underage Gymnasts Claims

Olympic committee probes evidence that China's gymnasts are underage.

September 25, 2008, 6:27 AM

BEIJING, Aug. 22, 2008 -- The International Olympic Committee today asked the international gymnastics federation, known as the FIG, to examine the ages of Chinese gymnasts in light of potential evdience that at least one of them is younger than 16.

In addition, U.S. Olympic Committee Chief Executive Jim Scherr said his organization sent a letter to the IOC and the FIG asking them to "the review the matter to see if they can't resolve it for the good of the competition, the integrity of the competition and the good of all the athletes." The new search for information comes after persistent media accounts that recently crowned Olympic gold medal gymnast He Kexin competed in earlier domestic competitions using a birthdate that made her ineligible to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

A U.S. blogger known as Stryde Hax wrote Thursday that he had uncovered Chinese state documents that proved He is 14 and not 16, which is the minimun age requirement to compete in the Olympics. The blogger found the documents on the Internet using the cache feature of two Internet search engines. The cache tool allows users to go back and view Web sites that are no longer available for viewing.

The blogger said he found documents that the Chinese government has since taken offline. Although they had been partially removed from Google's cache, the blogger said he then found them on the Chinese search engine, Baidu.

Whether any new information will surface is unclear. IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies cautioned reporters in a news conference today that no new information has surfaced but that the organization will go forward with the inquiry.

"You shouldn't regard this as some kind of formal investigation," Davies said. "The IOC is simply wanting to do its duty and work with the federation to 100 percent clarify the situation."

Wang Wei, Beijing Olympics organizing committee spokesman and executive vice president, said that He's age has already been legally confirmed as 16.

Several weeks ago, the Chinese federation sent the FIG official documents, including a copy of He's passport and national identity card (also obtained by ABC News), all of which indicated that He is 16.

"These documents have already been clarified, things have been cleared up," Wang said. "The eligibility of the athletes has already been investigated and authorized by the international federation. And if they haven't been cleared, they would not be able to participate in the Games."

For the sake of American gymnasts, Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, welcomes more information, if at all possible.

"USA Gymnastics has always believed this issue needed to be addressed by the FIG and IOC," Penny said in a statement. "An investigation would help bring closure to the issue and remove any cloud of speculation from this competition."

Meanwhile, China's gymnastics coach Lu Shanzhen said his gymnasts have faced "groundless suspicion." They have chalked up the inquiry to a fierce U.S.-China rivalry in gymnastics.

"Because the competition is so strong and close between the U.S. and Chinese teams, we've come under this level of scrutiny and pressure," Lu told Associated Press Television.

Frank Fredericks, a former Namibian sprinter and president of the IOC Athletes Commission, sees this investigation as more than a China versus U.S. investigation. To Fredericks, it is an opportunity to deter potential cheating in the future.

"We are telling the cheats there won't be possibility to cheat anymore," he said. "Because they are not just cheating themselves, they are cheating other athletes from taking their victory ceremonies, from carrying their flags around, to hearing their national anthems. So I think I would not stop fighting."

He and any of her Chinese teammates would be disqualified if they were found to be underage. The upshot is that she would lose her gold medal in the uneven bars to U.S. silver medal winner Nastia Liukin. And the Chinese would lose the gold for team all-around to the United States.

As for what the FIG and IOC will ultimately find, no one knows. Bu, according to ABC News sports analyst Christine Brennan, today's inquiry represents a turning point for the IOC.

"Are they really going to look?" Brennan asked. "Because if they do, they're going to find what bloggers and reporters have already found ... that the Chinese cheated."

But as the IOC looks closer, so far there is no official proof that He is anything but 16.

To see the evidence found on the Internet at Stryde Hax's blog click here.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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