Pressing questions about the Chinese gymnasts controversy
SI.com caught up with senior writer E.M. Swift to get his thoughts on the controversy surrounding the Chinese gymnasts heading into Friday's all-around competition. Under Olympic regulations, female gymnasts must turn 16 during the year of competition. China scored 188.900 for its team victory. The United States won silver by scoring 186.525. (See photos of the suspect Chinese gymnasts here.)
SI.com: What is the consensus among the world's gymnastics journalists regarding the Chinese female gymnasts?
Swift: The consensus of those I have talked to is that at least two, three or maybe as many as four are younger than 16. If they are not younger than 16, then they are sick and in danger. There is a 68-pound girl (Deng Linlin) on that team is claiming to be 16 years old. That is not a healthy body. If she is 16 and weighs 68 pounds, someone ought to put her in a hospital. The Romanians, the Russians and the Americans all look age appropriate. The only country that apparently is cheating is China.
SI.com: So why would a country do this?
Swift: Are the medals that important for the possible stain? I think the downside for China is greater than the upside. You are getting one gold medal or maybe more, because some of these girls will win individual medals. But this is a different kind of cheating than doping. This would be an institutionalized cheating where a federation or a government is involved. If they are handing out false documentation, then it's institutional cheating. That is so against the Olympic ideal. Here's the other dangerous thing about it: They won. I mean, they won the gold medal. If the Chinese did indeed get away with handing out false documentation, who's to say another country wouldn't try to do the same in future Olympics?
SI.com: Why is there an age limit in gymnastics?
Swift: It was instituted primarily for the mental health of the athletes. Being 14 and having those Olympic or world championship expectations put on you is unreasonable and very difficult. There's also the question of the physical health of the athletes because their bones are still growing and they are trying -- and often completing -- these very difficult and complicated tricks. The question is whether they would do them anyway if they were not Olympic-eligible and maybe the answer is yes. But these are very dangerous tricks, and the older you can make the athletes and the more their bodies have developed, the safer they are.
SI.com: What effect has age restriction had on international competition?
Swift: It has had an impact. Nadia Comaneci was 14 when she won in Montreal in 1976. Four years later, she did well. She won a couple of medals but did not win the all-around medal and she was not the dominant gymnast she was as a 14 year old. So there is a physical advantage to being smaller, more flexible and quicker. We see this in figure skating, which has the same rule. The hips, when they have not developed, spin quicker. That enables the competitors to do more complicated routines. In gymnastics, it's flips. If you are smaller, you can flip more. Some people also think the younger athlete does not feel as much pressure, so it has an advantage in that respect, too.
SI.com: Is the current rule correct in your opinion?
Swift: Well, the rule is there, and whether you agree with the rule or not, everyone should abide by it. So, if one country is not abiding by it, and in these Games that country would appear to be China, it is unfair competition. If what has happened here is that China is giving false papers to underage athletes, that is wrong.
Now do I think the rule is good? I think it is. I happen to think children should not be competing at this level. It is too much pressure on them. If there is no age limit at all, there is the "ick" or "creep" factor in gymnastics. I mean, it's women's gymnastics and not girls' gymnastics that we're covering. Sixteen is young enough.
If you are going to penalize someone for having her body develop, that does not seem right. I also think the more womanly figure in these competitions is more attractive to watch for the viewers. You see it in the floor exercise, these tiny little girls doing their dance moves, and it's just like watching a child out there. The really beautiful gymnasts I have seen in my career -- like [Russia's] Svetlana Boginskaya, who won five Olympic medals when she was 20 -- have an elegance to them that is good for the sport and good for the viewers. You don't get that with these little children doing their tricks.
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