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Sports: Femurs and lies

A surprising new view of "women's" gymnastics at the Beijing Olympics

He Kexin of China holds her gold medal on the podium during the medal presentation ceremony for the women's uneven bars final in the artistic gymnastics competition at the Beijing Olympic Games Aug. 18, 2008. The International Olympic Committee launched an investigation into the ages of female gymnasts on China's Olympic team. (Hans Deryk/Reuters)

Journalists who cover Olympics are highly privileged spectators. Which is why I got to watch one of the glamour events at last summer’s Beijing Games — the women’s gymnastics competition — from a second-row perch, no more than a flying dismount from the balance beam.

Now I don’t claim to have CSI eyes or even a carney’s finely honed skills at guesstimating. But I am the father of a daughter and a veteran of many seasons coaching girl’s sports. And long before there were public allegations that some girls on China’s gold-medal team were younger than the minimum permissible age of 16, I was convinced that I was watching kids who, back home, would have still been attending junior high.

The minimum age rule was designed to protect younger girls from the physical and emotional demands of elite competition. And it was adopted in spite of the fact that many female gymnasts actually peak at a young age. Nadia Comaneci was only 14 years old when she delivered the greatest gymnastics performance in Olympic history — with its memorable string of perfect “10”s — at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Younger female competitors aren’t struggling with new imbalances from added inches or curves. They succumb more willingly to the disciplinary demands of their coaches. And they tend to be more fearless than their elders, an advantage on the treacherous bars and beams.

The Chinese denied that there were any age improprieties and a toothless international federation concluded there was no proof of wrongdoing. So it comes as a bit of shock that a provincial government agency in China has released a study documenting widespread falsification of ages by young Chinese athletes. But these athletes aren’t pretending to be older — rather, they're pretending to be younger than their actual age.

The study — first reported on China’s Southern Metropolis Daily website — emerged from the Sports Bureau in the southern province of Guangdong, which will host the 2010 Asian Games. The bureau reported that it had X-rayed the bones of some 15,000 teenage athletes who competed under its auspices.

Its conclusion: As many as 20 percent were older than their stated age — some by as much as seven years, though most by only one or two years. Authorities determined that two-thirds of these “age-fakers” were already ineligible for the junior events in which they were competing and another one-third would have to compete at a higher age level.