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Andy’s take on the Chinese age ruling…

Wow.  This is truly a landmark day in women’s gymnastics…though I wish it were for a different reason.  I’m sure many of you have read (or will very soon read) about the FIG ruling that Dong Fangxiao was, in fact, underage at both the 1999 world championships and 2000 Olympics.  Oddly enough, there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that Yang Yun was also underage, despite the fact that the girl said she was 14 at the Olympics on national television.  As I’ve stated before, your age at your first and only Olympic Games is not something you tend to remember inaccurately…especially when it’s in a year like 2000 that’s very easy to add and subtract from.

But aside from the fact that Yang Yun gets to keep her Olympic bronze on uneven bars, that’s really beside the point.  The real point here is that, for the first time in gymnastics history, Olympic medals could actually be taken away from a team retroactively based on a confirmed age falsification.  This is absolutely unprecedented in our sport, and in some ways, long overdue.

Don’t get me wrong….I’m one of the biggest OPPONENTS of the age rule itself.  I think it is bordering on ludicrous and does far more harm to our sport than good.  I’ve always said that girls are MUCH more likely to get injured as a result of prolonged careers rather than being pushed hard at a young age.  Ask Bruno Grandi who gets injured more often in gymnastics….the 13- and 14-year-olds or the 18+ year-olds who are trying to hold on to the sport while fighting against Mother Nature?  The mere fact that the best teams in the world have, for years, felt the need to bypass this rule is itself good evidence that something about it doesn’t make sense.

But rules are rules, and cheating is cheating.  If we have rules that some teams are bound by but not others, then by definition we have an unfair competition. It’s as simple as that.  Suppose, for example, that the FIG made a rule that no gymnast weighing under 100 pounds could compete in a world championships or Olympic Games (I wouldn’t put it past them).  And suppose that all teams abided by this rule except for one…and that one team was found to be placing hidden weights inside of the gymnasts’ leotards to make them weigh more (not sure how exactly but you get the point!).  The competition would immediately be unfair, because the eligible participants of the competing teams would no longer be equivalent.  The results of all violating members would be void.  If you make the tennis court smaller or the football field longer or the basketball hoop higher, you have to do it on both sides.  Whether or not the participants or fans agree with the rule is irrelevant.

Just for kicks, I went back and looked at the results of the Sydney Olympics to see if there was a way to ONLY take out Dong Fangxiao’s results so that all of her teammates didn’t have to lose their medals as well.  You may recall that the format was 6-5-4 (6 gymnasts on a team, 5 per event, and 4 scores count), so I figured we could simply drop out Dong’s individual scores and see if the team still would have medaled without her.  When I came across the results, I remembered something very important….Kui Yuanyuan dropped out of the competition after she injured her knee in preliminaries.  As a result, China put up only four athletes on both vault and beam in the team finals, and thus had to count all four scores.  If we remove Dong’s scores on those events, China immediately drops to last.  The USA women get the bronze.

I did the same thing for the 1999 world championships, where China also won the bronze and Ukraine finished 4th.  At this competition, China DID have a one-score buffer in the team finals on every event (was also a 6-5-4 format).  However, when Dong’s scores are dropped, China drops to 4th place, about one full point behind Ukraine.

I think these considerations are very important, since compromises such as these are likely being discussed by the FIG and IOC.  The crazy part about all of this is that it is almost a FULL DECADE after the competition, and we may very well be seeing medals taken away from gymnasts who have likely kept them in trophy cases over the last ten years.  However, the IOC did say that they will take “necessary measures” if either Dong or Yang were found underage, and now they are faced with that reality.  We can’t say for sure what those “necessary measures” are, but the statement indeed indicates the committee’s intention to do something.

The Sydney Olympics was screwed up enough already without all of this.  Andrea Raducan was stripped of her all-around gold, the incorrect vault setting essentially nullfified the entire competition altogether, and now we may be taking a team medal from China and giving it to the USA.  Looking on the bright side, perhaps the comebacks of Amy Chow and Dominique Dawes in 2000 will now seem a little more worthwhile, and four gymnasts now well into their 20’s – Elise Ray, Kristen Maloney, Jamie Dantscher, and Tasha Schwikert – may suddenly become Olympic medalists for the first time.

The outcome of this finding will be a landmark decision in gymnastics, as it will provide the precedent upon which all similar infractions in the future will be based.  The fact that other teams have committed similar fraudulent acts in the past and gone unpunished is irrelevant, because it doesn’t change the fact that a violation occurred.  Under any rule or law, there are always going to be violators who get away with wrongdoing and others who simply get caught. This is an instance where China was caught, and thus penalties should be implemented – for the integrity of the sport, for the fairness of all athletes involved, and for the example it sets for future rule violations.  If other gymnasts are also suspected of being violators of this rule in the past (various Romanians come to mind), then separate investigations should be carried out to bring justice to those situations as well.  I say that if the FIG feels it so necessary to implement such a rule and views any neglect of this rule as so dangerous for young athletes, then it should be more than willing to carry out investigations to ensure its enforcement.  If the FIG isn’t willing to investigate each suspected violation, then I think it has no business implementing the rule.

It’s easy to view the redistribution of medals as “punishment” for the athletes who have their medals taken away.  It’s very tempting to feel sorry for Dong Fangxiao and the Chinese Federation and view them as victims of a ridiculous rule.  However, remember that these underage gymnasts were never supposed to be in their respective competitions to begin with, and thus they have permanently altered the true and rightful outcome of the competitions and hoarded medals away from other athletes who worked hard their entire lives for the same rewards but earned them rightfully and honestly.  As with any “crime,” our sympathy and compassion should lie not with the perpetrator, but with the victim.  Let’s not forget that the true victims in these situations are not Dong Fangxiao, Yang Yun, Kim Gwang Suk, Gina Gogean,  Daniela Silivas, Alexandra Marinescu, or any of their dishonest federations; they are the unfortunate gymnasts who wrongfully placed just behind them.