Gymnastics: Tweddle the loser as age doubts mar He's triumph
Tuesday 19 August 2008
The British gymnast Beth Tweddle was a victim last night of the latest apparent faking scandal to hit these Games when she lost out on a medal in the uneven bars event because of a rival who should probably not have been competing at all.
A mounting body of evidence suggests that the Chinese gymnast, He Kexin, is too young to be in the Olympics. According to several official Chinese sources in the past, she is 14, and hence below the minimum age to take part. But she won the uneven bars last night, with Tweddle fourth.
The Chinese authorities now insist that He is 16, although at 4ft 8in and 5st 2llb she looks much younger. She has new documents "including a passport issued in February" which say she is 16, but no credible explanation has been given as to why her birth date was previously two years later than now.
References to her younger age have been wiped off computer systems. One online article in the China Daily state newspaper previously said she was 14. It has been changed to 16.
Tweddle, the 2006 uneven bars world champion, comes from Cheshire and trains in Toxteth. At 23, she is relatively ancient. None of the other seven finalists last night were older than 18. This might have been Tweddle's last Games, and in a sport where youth dominates, it was certainly her last realistic chance of an Olympic podium finish. If He had not been taking part, Tweddle would in all likelihood have won a bronze medal, at least.
Another of the medallists was another Chinese girl, Yang Yilin, who took third place behind He and America's Nastasia Luikin. There have also been doubts about Yang's age. The Chinese now say she is 16, as does her new passport. But registration lists at the sports body The General Administration of Sport of China – located and verified by US media outlets including the New York Times – previously gave her birth year as 1993.
Neither Tweddle nor Luikin wanted to make a public complaint about He last night. "I can only do what I do and not worry about the rest," Tweddle said. Luikin, 18, said: "I don't know how old she is but I do know that she gave a performance that merited her medal."
The issue of "age falsification" is not new in gymnastics. Minimum age requirements were introduced in the late 1990s because the sport was increasingly populated by young teenagers, with subsequent child welfare concerns. Gymnasts must now be 16 to enter the Olympics, or turn 16 in the calendar year the Games take place. There are lower limits in sports like diving, for example, because diving is not so thoroughly populated by children in the way gymnastics was.
The controversy over He has been bubbling since the Chinese named her in their team for the Games. Her age went from 14 to 16. Two official Chinese gymnastic websites "now blocked" previously gave He's birth date as 1994. Perhaps the most compelling evidence of He's real age is that she was cited as a 13 last November in a speech by a leading Chinese sports official, Liu Peng, when he was talking of her potential.
Yet when the New York Times presented this evidence to Chinese Olympic officials, the paper was shown He's passport, issued in February. Her date of birth is given as 1 January 1992. The International Olympic Committee will not investigate, saying the gymnastics governing body, the FIG, is responsible for age verification. The FIG says a passport is proof of age. And that, unfortunately for Tweddle, is that.
The Independent last night tried to speak to He in the "mix zone" and ask her age but she was quickly ushered away. Standing close up, three feet away from her at most, she does not even look 14, let alone 16. When The Independent tried to take a photograph, three officials blocked the view, briefly tried to take the camera, and then hurried He away.
There were no quibbles from Tweddle about her fourth-place score of 16.625. "Obviously I'm gutted but last Sunday I didn't think I'd even be competing [because of a rib injury] so I'm pleased just to make the final." Her mark would have been better, almost certainly good enough for a podium place, but for a messy dismount.
Prior to that, she had performed a splendid routine which was technically the most difficult of the eight on show. It elicited the loudest gasps of appreciation from a knowledgeable crowd.
"The dismount probably did cost me my place [on the podium]," she said. "My dismount is normally not a problem but I just didn't get enough height and to be honest I thought I was going to end up on my face."
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