Share This Page

China gymnast underage, AP alleges

China's gymnastics team has been using at least one girl under the Olympics' allowed age of 16, according to a finding made by The Associated Press on Thursday.

The report has created an international controversy. Some coaches believe younger gymnasts have an advantage over older ones, because they have greater flexibility and a higher strength-to-weight ratio.

"When they're younger -- before they even hit 13 -- they hit their peak, especially top-level gymnasts," said Gary Stam, a coach for Gymkhana Gymnastics Schools, which has three schools in the Pittsburgh area.

The Associated Press discovered a report on China's government-run Xinhua Web site that labeled gymnast He Kexin as one of "10 big new stars," reporting that she turned 13 on Nov. 3, 2007.

The AP saved a copy of the Web page, which is now inaccessible. Questions have been raised about the ages of He's teammates, although Chinese officials maintain that all are at least 16.

A May 23 story in China Daily, the official English-language newspaper of the country, reported He was 14. A correction ran the following day, changing her age to 16.

If He's age is actually below the Olympic minimum, her youth could have helped boost China to its first team gold medal in women's gymnastics.

Elaine Jewart, owner of Jewart's Gymnastics in the North Hills, said the bodily changes that come with the onset of puberty affect a gymnast's center of gravity and strength-to-weight ratio, putting strain on the body.

"By choosing a child who hasn't gone through that, you're eliminating the stress factor," Jewart said.

Younger gymnasts' bodies are less susceptible to overuse injuries because they haven't been training as long as older gymnasts, according to Penn State women's gymnastics coach Steve Shephard.

"It's the old adage: The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Shephard said. "Little kids bounce when they fall and get up laughing. The bigger kids don't get up so quick."

In addition to the physiological advantages, younger gymnasts have a psychological edge.

"An athlete at that age has not had as many serious injuries as older ones," said Jason Butts, an assistant women's gymnastics coach at West Virginia University. "They're not as subject to fear from injuries or the knowledge of what they're actually doing."

Said Pitt women's gymnastics coach Debbie Yohman: "They go into that Olympic arena, and I'm not sure they realize how big that is."

But for all of the advantages prepubescent gymnasts present, the coaches acknowledged large drawbacks to them competing at such a high level.

Stam said that while the athlete's smaller frame is an advantage in events such as the bars and balance beam, older gymnasts have more strength for the vault and are more graceful in the floor event.

A younger child may be emotionally devastated by an Olympic-level failure, Butts said. Generally, older performers handle defeats better because they have more experience with them.

And though their cartilage is more flexible than older girls', younger gymnasts may still be in danger physically.

Dr. Jeanne Dopbrak, a UPMC sports medicine physician, said young athletes are more prone to injuries, which can stunt growth and delay puberty.

"Their immature skeleton just isn't ready to handle the day-to-day stresses that will occur," Dopbrak said. "If you have a storm coming, would you rather be in a house under construction or in your finished home?"

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.