BEIJING (Reuters) - Even with their eyeshadow and mascara, gymnasts look young. The question is, exactly how young? China’s tiny leotard-clad athletes have repeatedly had to fend off questions about not being old enough to compete at the Olympics. On Friday the International Olympic Committee called for an investigation into exactly how old one gold medalist is.
He Kexin is 16 according to International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) records but newspaper reports citing online records suggest the double gold medalist is 14, prompting the IOC to ask the sport’s governing body to clear up the matter.
The state news agency Xinhua ran a picture caption last year referring to “13-year-old He Kexin” while China Daily reported in May that she was 14.
Gymnasts must be 16 in the year of an Olympics to take part.
Having picked up nine of the 14 gold medals on offer in one of the Games’ crown jewel sports, any whiff of a scandal would be damaging for the Olympic hosts during the Games.
Luckily for China, the results of any investigation are likely to come out only once the media circus has left town after the Games close on Sunday and any bad news would then likely cause more of a ripple than a splash.
Age questions have dominated Chinese female gymnasts’ news conferences, with reporters trying to catch them out by queries like ‘What Chinese zodiac animal are you?’.
Each time, they have given the correct answer and repeated: “I am 16. I don’t care what other people think.”
Until Friday, the IOC had brushed aside concerns about age at the Games, saying the athletes were sanctioned by their respective federations.
The FIG said it was confident there were no problems because the IOC had confirmed that all passports used for accreditation were valid.
The nature of the sport means gymnasts often look younger than they really are because they are shorter than average and also very light. The glitter and the make-up helps them look a bit older.
They are considered almost geriatric when they reach 20, giving a very small window of opportunity for their career on the international stage, especially since the age rule was introduced in 1997 to protect gymnasts’ physical and mental wellbeing.
Nadia Comaneci was just 14 when she won Olympic gold and she told Reuters last week that there was no need for the FIG to have raised the minimum age for competing.
“To be good at 15 or 16, you have to be great at 12,” she said of a sport which most children have to start by the time they are 5 to succeed in it.
Editing by Jeremy Laurence
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