Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty?’ There’s been so much fuss over the last week over the Chinese gymnastic team. A number of the members of the female team (anywhere from three to five of the six, depending on your source) are suspected of being under sixteen- the minimum age required to compete in Olympic gymnastics.* Before the Olympics all competitors were required to show valid passports in order to prove their eligibility; the gymnastic team passed. Since then multifarious papers have been asked for, given, and approved. Yet the vast majority of people I’ve heard from, media and otherwise, seem to believe that the gymnasts are under-aged.
At this point, what could prove the gymnasts innocence? As their coach put it:
“The passports were issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The identity card was issued by China’s Ministry of Public Security. If these valid documents are not enough to clarify this problem, then what will you believe?”
Now, that’s not to say that the Chinese government isn’t capable of falsifying documents. Exactly this type of falsification has been done before, and by the Chinese to boot (a gymnast spoke out afterward revealing that they were only 14 at the time of the competition). There was no big fuss- there were no medals on the line.
But while the Chinese certainly had the opportunity to slip in underage athletes, I don’t think they would in this case. The primary argument for them doing it works in the other direction as well: they want to impress the world on the Olympic stage. So far they’ve done well; they currently have more golds than any other country. The point, however, is that if they cheat and get caught at the games they are hosting, it will look very bad. I’d argue that it’s not worth the risk.
A few other things make it plausible that the girls are all sixteen or older. Do they look young? Yes, but there are numerous explanations for this.
- Race; its a fact that many Chinese are smaller than Westerners. I’ve met high schoolers who could have passed for eight or nine year old children. Furthermore they look different, which makes it harder to judge age.
- Physical maturity; intense physical training can slow or postpone development in girls. This is because when a female’s body fat percentage is below a certain level the hypothalamus prevents the release of certain hormones tied to development. I know Caucasians for whom this is the case- they are runners, or dancers, and in one case a gymnast. While they couldn’t pass for more than two or three years below their actual ages, consider also the relative intensity of their training. China has been criticized for the way they treat their athletes, separating them and devoting their lives to training for the Olympics. Of course their growth has been delayed further than that of athletes who need to arrange their training around school, etc.
- Size of gene pool; China’s population is over 1.3 billion and rising. That’s over 20% of the world population unless we broke 7 billion and no one told me. Why can’t these athletes have ‘odd’ genes, and be naturally small and slow developing? If any nation could find such an anomaly in it’s population, odds are on it being China given both it’s government and it’s population. For all we know they have dwarfism or something of that sort. Yes, here that would be all over the news, but China’s culture is different. Perhaps they would respect their athletes enough that such a thing would be kept secret, even given the current suspicions.
Of course, I have no more proof than those accusing the Chinese of cheating. The accusers have old web pages which may or may not be reliable and I have general information on things which could cause the athletes to appear younger than they are, particularly to Westerners who’ve just lost a slew of gold medals to them. However I will ask that everyone keep in mind the American notion of innocence until proven guilty. Frankly I won’t be too surprised if some of them are too young, but there is no reason to assume that is the case without proof.
*Technically it is possible to compete while 15 as the exact requirement is that the athlete’s 16th birthday be in the Olympic year.