Age Of Chinese Women Gymnasts Questioned
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
They are springy pixies with glittery eye shadow, bright smiles and an Olympic gold medal - the Chinese women's gymnastics team. But the word, women, sticks on the tongue. They look like very young girls. And reporters who've looked at official records online have questioned whether China's gymnastic stars are in fact 16 - that's the minimum age to compete in gymnastics in the Olympic Games. Those records show that several of China's gymnasts were previously listed with birthdates that make them a year or two younger than that.
Age controversies are not new to gymnastics, and Dwight Normile, editor of "International Gymnast" magazine, joins to us to talk about that. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. DWIGHT NORMILE (Editor, "International Gymnast"): Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And first, Dwight, when you've been watching these games and you look at that Chinese team, do you think they're 16 years old?
Mr. NORMILE: Well, my gut feeling says no, they're probably younger. But this is not the first time it's happened. And for those in the sport, they've kind of looked the other way because there are some impressed with their gymnastics.
BLOCK: You say it's not the first time it's happened. Let's talk about some of the past cases where we've learned subsequently that athletes were not as old as they were said to be.
Mr. NORMILE: Well, the international governing body, which we call the FIG, banned the North Korean women after one of their gymnasts had been 15 years old for three years in a row. And a couple of Romanian gymnasts, long after they retired, have come forth and said their ages were changed. In fact, one of the Chinese gymnasts from the Sydney Olympics admitted later on that she was too young in 2000.
BLOCK: I remember back in 1976 watching Nadia Comaneci blow everybody away, and she was 14 at the time. That used to be the minimum age. Why did it get raised to 16?
Mr. NORMILE: Well, the officials, the powers to be, saw that more and more competitions were being won by very young gymnasts. And they wanted it to be women's artistic gymnastics, which is the official title of the sport. And so, they raised it to 16 in 1997. But Bruno Grandi, the president of the International Gymnastics Federation, at the time, said he want it to be raised to 18.
BLOCK: Was there also concern about the injury rate among very young women athletes?
Mr. NORMILE: One of the lines of thinking was that coaches were pushing gymnasts too fast, too early, and they're in a race with puberty.
To be honest, the physics of gymnastics rewards a light, strong body. And if you go through puberty, it's much harder to do those double somersaults, and that's why we've had this problem now.
BLOCK: And if you look at the Chinese team, the average height of those women or girls, four-feet-nine, the average weight, 77 pounds. The U.S. team is about three and a half inches taller and 30 pounds heavier on average.
Mr. NORMILE: Right. After the Athens Olympics, when there was a scoring controversy, the IOC put some pressure on the FIG to change its scoring system. They revamped it and went to an open-ended system, much as diving is, where your difficulty is separate from your execution score. Unfortunately, they made the difficulty values of all the skills worth too much. And so, difficulty is the way to beat your competitors, not artistry.
BLOCK: You mean, it's pushing for gymnasts to be lighter, younger, more nimble?
Mr. NORMILE: Yes. I'll give you an example. Last night, on the uneven bars, Nastia Liukin scored a 16.9 on the uneven bars - 7.7 of that was for her difficulty, much too big a proportion of the final score if they want to return to artistry.
BLOCK: Do you hear any calls from people who say this should be taken far more seriously that people get kicked out of the Olympics for doping? Why should they be allowed to keep the gold medal if they broke the rules on age?
Mr. NORMILE: Yeah, if a rule is in place, it should be followed. Unfortunately, they can't enforce this rule.
BLOCK: Well, Dwight Normile, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. NORMILE: Thank you.
BLOCK: Dwight Normile is editor of "International Gymnast" magazine.
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