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IOC made the right decision…

Coming out of the mouth of one of the biggest opponents of the age requirement to begin with…I must say I am very proud of the IOC.  If the FIG is going to try to enforce such strict rules that have such a huge impact on world and Olympic competition – no matter how absurd they may be – there HAS to be consequences for violators.  A simple slap on the wrist simply isn’t going to discourage federations like China from continuing to cheat in the future, but taking away their Olympic medals will.  As much as I hate to see an Olympic competition tainted by controversy, I’d much rather see justice served in the name of fairness and for the overall integrity of the sport.  Rather than focusing on an Olympic medal being taken away, I think we should all shift our focus to the six American girls who will be winning an Olympic bronze medal that should have rightfully been theirs ten years ago.  For four out of the six Americans (Jamie Dantzscher, Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, and Tasha Schwikert), it will be the ONLY world or Olympic medal in their  trophy cases.  What an incredible way to salvage the dismal medal drought the United States suffered through during the 1997-2000 quadrennial.

One thing that’s very important to remember is that several other countries would have LOVED to be able to put out gymnasts younger than the ones they did in Sydney, but unlike China, they couldn’t because they followed the rules.  Let’s take the United States, for example.  In 2000, Kristal Uzelac was the junior national champion and actually scored high enough to place FOURTH among the seniors, beating out HALF of our Olympic team as well as Vanessa Atler, Alyssa Beckerman, Morgan White, Dominique Moceanu, and others.  But did we use her?  No, because she was too young.  Or how about the following year in 2001, when Uzelac – still a junior – would have placed SECOND among the seniors behind Tasha Schwikert, yet was ineligible to be on the world team?  Even second and third place juniors Hollie Vise and Carly Patterson would have placed 3rd and 5th respectively, in the senior division, and would have almost certainly been on that world team, which ended up winning bronze in Ghent, Belgium.

And I’m sure Romania would have loved to use 2000 Junior European All-Around Champion Sabina Cojocar in Sydney, and Russia would have likely used Natalia Ziganshina and perhaps even Anna Pavlova instead of the two no-name gymnasts we never heard from again (Chepeleva and Kolesnikova).

And don’t think for a SECOND that Nastia Liukin wouldn’t have been on the Olympic team in Athens had she been age-eligible.  Her two-day all-around total at the 2004 nationals would have placed her THIRD among the seniors – just behind Courtney Kupets and soon-to-be Olympic champion and teammate Carly Patterson.  Nastia’s beam scores in that meet were 9.725 and 9.75, just half a tenth behind Carly Patterson’s beam total…and to think we actually used MOHINI BHARDWAJ on beam in the team finals in Athens!!!   Even Nastia’s floor scores (9.55 and 9.675 in that meet) would have been a tremendous asset to the team.  You could easily argue that Nastia would have more than made up for the seven tenths by which the USA lost the gold to Romania, but again…it’s really beside the point because she was too young.  Similarly, I’m sure Marta Karolyi and her committee would have loved to use Samantha Shapiro – who scored a whopping 15.9 on bars at the 2008 U.S. Championships – to fill our hole on bars on the 2008 Olympic team.  But Sammy was too young, and we had to settle for Shawn Johnson’s low to mid-15 score in the team finals in Beijing.

I could go on and on, but the point of all this is that before we go feeling sorry for the Chinese, remember that age-ineligible junior gymnasts being better than their senior counterparts is nothing new in women’s gymnastics, and the results of many past world and Olympic competitions would have been significantly altered had this rule not been in place (or simply not followed…).  The strong desire to violate this rule has undoubtedly tempted many federations, but only some have actually crossed the line and done so, and even fewer have been caught.  China happened to get caught, and the rightful action has now taken place.

There’s no question that this decision is an absolute landmark in our sport, as age controversies have existed for years, but actual investigations and “retrograde” consequences are a brand new concept in gymnastics.  Check out Blythe Lawrence’s insightful article on Gymnastics Examiner for a fascinating look at some other past competitions whose medalists would change if similar age investigations were to be undertaken and consequences followed through.

I, for, one, believe that the best outcome that could come from all of this is an elimination of the age requirement once and for all, as it has clearly caused NOTHING but complications, controversies, missed opportunities, lost Olympic dreams, silly investigations, and “asterisks” to the results of some of the most important competitions in our sport.  It’s time to do away with it altogether, and allow elite gymnasts to be exactly what they’ve trained to be – elite gymnasts.  I propose that the women adopt the exact same system as the men with regards to levels and junior vs. senior competition.  On the men’s side, levels 4-10 are considered “junior gymnastics,” and elite gymnastics is elite gymnastics.  Trying to create this arbitrary separation of junior and senior elites on the women’s side has done nothing but produce a lot of “what-if’s.”  Let’s just make the Level 10’s “junior elites” like we do for the men, and let elites be the ones eligible for world and Olympic competition.

Speaking of asterisks, we’ll now have to add yet a third asterisk to the Sydney Olympics.  First the vaulting debacle that arguably changed everything in the women’s all-around final, then the best gymnast of the competition having her gold medal stripped because she took a cold medicine, and now an Olympic team medal being switched ten years later.

Is it too late for an entire do-over?