Too Young for Games

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

retton-wheaties.jpg Swimming and Track & Field are the marquee sports of every summer Olympic Games but gymnastics is known as the jewel of the whole spectacle--notably women's gymnastics. The television schedule purposefully orchestrates women's gymnastics into the heart of prime-time viewing. And if you think back over the years, you'll remember several women gymnasts as the key protagonists of many different Games. The only athlete to come close to sharing Mark Spitz's brightly-focused spotlight in Munich, 1972, was the charismatic Olga Korbut whose four medals, difficult acrobatics, and charismatic smile nearly melted down the Cold War on their own. Nadia Comaneci was the unchallenged darling of Montreal, 1976. Her stunning perfect 10 on the uneven bars is often listed as one of the crown moments in all Olympic history. The story of the Los Angeles Games, 1984, was Mary Lou Retton. Her pressured final vault vaulted her onto the gold medal stand, onto the Wheaties Box, and into the American consciousness forever more.

There's a Chinese gymnast whose specialty, like Nadia Comaneci, is the uneven bars. He Kexin will go into that event as a favorite for the individual gold medal and, like Nadia Comaneci at the time of her perfect 10 He is at the top of her sport at the tender age of fourteen. But wait a minute. Since Nadia's time, an age rule has been instituted. In 1997, it was deemed that every athlete must turn sixteen by July 1 prior to the Games in order to compete. The minimum age is even higher in some sports. The minimum is twenty for the marathon, for instance. In gymnastics, you must be sixteen. In competition results over the last couple of years, in newspapers such as The China Daily, in lists of Chinese national identification card numbers, He's birthday is consistently recorded as January 1, 1994, meaning she is fourteen and won't turn fifteen for another five months. One of He's teammates, Jiang Yuyuan, also has had consistent reportings of her fifteenth birthday not coming until after the Games, yet both these girls have been issued current passports with birth dates making them both sixteen and thus eligible to compete in Beijing.

Arguments on age minimums in sport have been raging for a long time. The prevailing movement in golf and tennis and most Olympic sports is that a young person under sixteen is subject to both physical injury and undue mental distress by the rigors of world-level training and competition. There are others, however, who don't think it fair that if an athlete peaks at thirteen, fourteen, fifteen he or she should be denied perhaps the one window he or she might have to shine on the world stage…especially in the case of a female gymnast whereby growth and development of curvy female characteristics are a substantial hindrance to performance. What if the 1997 age minimum had been enforced back in 1976? We would have never had the privilege of witnessing the brilliance of Nadia Comaneci. And Nadia is the first to remind us that her early stardom had no negative effects on either her body or her psyche. The argument may rage on but the point is that the standing Olympic age minimum is sixteen and these two Chinese athletes' ages are in question. As is de rigeur in countries run by authoritarian governments, official documents are easily manipulated. We have little reason to believe the actual ages of Cuban baseball players, North Korean weight lifters, or Chinese gymnasts.

I know one person who must be following this age discrepancy story of He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan very closely. That's Peng Peng Lee, the top gymnast in Canada. She is by far the best in her country but she won't be going to Beijing because she's only fifteen. And Peng Peng Lee has had no resources to tamper with her birth date on a valid passport in time for the Olympics.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad