Even people who don’t follow the Olympics or care about gymnastics probably remember the incredible triumph of the US women’s gymnastics team’s triumph in Atlanta in 1996, with the iconic image of Kerri Strug being carried by her coach, Bela Karolyi, after successfully landing a winning vault on a broken ankle. Since then, the US team has continued to produce great gymnasts – both Carly Patterson (2004, Athens) and Nastia Liukin (2008, Beijing) took home all-around gold medals – one of their biggest rivals has been the emergent Chinese team.
China has faced international criticism for allegations concerning the age of their gymnasts and the system in which they are trained. China’s state-funded athletics program takes young, talented athletes away from their families and places them in government-run centers where they train constantly. Some girls have talked about the enormous physical and mental pressure they face, as well as the pain of being separated from their families. The International Olympic Committee has a rule that Olympians must be sixteen (although they’re sometimes fifteen, since the rules state an athlete can turn 16 in the year of the Olympics), and the Chinese team has repeatedly come under fire for the young-seeming gymnasts they send to compete. China has evaded many questions about age eligibility, but they provided state-issued passports for all their athletes.
However, it seems that international pressure to investigate the age of Chinese gymnasts is starting to have an effect. Dong Fangxiao, one of the team’s stars, was found to have been only 14 in 2000, where the Chinese team won the bronze medal. Because of Dong’s disqualification, the bronze medal has officially been taken from the Chinese and given to the Americans, who had placed fourth.
While this is a bittersweet victory for the US team (2000 was the only year the US women didn’t take home a single gymnastics medal, despite two members of the 1996 squad being on it again), there’s a part of me that feels for Dong Fangxiao. Can you imagine being a fourteen year old girl, living away from your parents for most of your childhood, and managing to beat people older than you in order to win a medal for your team, and ten years later having it taken away from you? I don’t blame her – I blame the Chinese system that places winning above honesty and medals over kids’ childhoods. Will it always take ten years for the IOC (International Olympic Committee, the Games’ governing body) to act? There were tons of allegations flying around during the 2008 Beijing Olympics – when will they be investigated? If anything, this ten year headstart will just give China more time to think of creative ways to conceal their athletes’ real ages. Until real steps are made to reform the Chinese system, there’s absolutely no incentive for them to be honest – just better about hiding their deceit. And how many more young girls will be used by the machine until that happens?