Posted by: Kristy | August 24, 2008

Chinese cheese

The little magnet is of a mouse nibbling a wedge of cheese and says, “Age doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”

After this month, they should make a new one that has a petite female gymnast doing the splits or a handstand on a wedge of cheese and say, “Age doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese or a gymnast competing in a little international competition called the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.”

Let’s examine this issue of the Chinese women’s gymnastics team allegedly using girls who are younger than the required 16 years old within the year of the games. I’ll admit, look at photographs from the past two weeks and it’s easy to question if those girls are older than 13 or 14. While most gymnasts I know (including myself) are petite, which gives them an advantage, and Asian girls tend to be even more petite by nature, the women competing for China do pose a question regardless of how old their Chinese government-issued passports say they are. (Hello, government-issued passports? From a communist government? As if there’s any chance of reaching a resolution on this. Shine their gold medals and let it go.)

Is this fair? Not really. If they’re good, they’re good. However, the question is not of fair or of skill. It’s whether they violated a set rule of the games. The age limit changed from requiring a gymnast turn 15 the year of the games to 16 in 1997. While the change resulted from a desire to protect the girls’ mental and physical health since they must push so hard in training while they are still developing, does that extra time really make a difference?

Nadia Comaneci was only 14 when she scored the first perfect 10 in 1976, and anyone who has watched footage of that milestone can see the grace, poise and maturity she displayed. Whether it’s healthy, the early teens tend to be the best years of competition for a gymnast, and the rigors of the sport can result in benefits, as well. Though physically damaging to growing bodies (I know my feet will never be the same and I joke that I’m falling apart at 24), and mentally taxing, the sport also develops a mental and emotional fortitude. The window of time in which a woman can truly be competitive as an international gymnast, especially with the way the sport is changing in difficulty and expectations, is so short anyway — let them compete if they prove they deserve it. They will have a life for the next several decades but for now this is their life.

It might be embarrassing to be beat by a prepubescent, but skill is difficult to deny.

I agree with international super coach Bela Karolyi, who in ESPN magazine said the increasing age limit leads to cheating and knocks deserving gymnasts out of the running.

“The age limit is unfair,” Karolyi said. “It is nonsense. Whoever has the maturity and talent to compete at this level should be here.”

Protecting the mental and physical health of a young girl comes down to the responsibility of parents and coaches, not the International Federation of Gymnastics. The IFOG is there is regulate the sport, but can they interview every gymnast and see if she is mentally and emotionally handling the pressures of her sport well enough to compete internationally? The girls are going to be training regardless.

And what of women like Nastia Luikin, who was forced to wait four years to compete in the Olympics due to the age limit — she finally made her Olympics at age 19, and completely rocked the party that rocks the pinata. That could very well serve as an argument in favor of the age limit, but to make a girl push her body for four more years to maintain a dream when she missed one Olympic Games by a matter of months could be the flip side.

Unfortunately, the issue, again, in the Beijing situation is not what the age limit should be. The question is if it was violated, and since there may never be an answer over alleged falsified documents we may never really resolve this year’s scandal. But if the Chinese team did violate the rule they should be stripped of their medals. Rules are rules, though how sad for the young girls who poured themselves into their sport and came out on top.

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