Sports: Femurs and lies

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.

The announcement follows that of the Chinese Basketball Association, which revealed that about two dozen elite players once considered eligible for its junior teams in international competition were, in fact, older and ineligible. While the advantages of underage gymnasts may require some explaining, it is obvious how older athletes in almost all youth sports — bigger, stronger, more mature physically and mentally — would provide a significant competitive edge.

In a world where sports doping has become an epidemic, cheating — with governments sometimes orchestrating it or, at least, looking the other way — is hardly novel. Chinese sports official have been under tremendous pressure to develop winning athletes and teams, part of a national crusade aimed at topping the medal charts at the “hometown” 2008 Olympics. There are financial incentives for athletes to cheat and for government agencies to countenance or even encourage deception. Funding of provincial sports programs and athletes is contingent on their success.

The real question is not why there has been widespread cheating in China, but why China has decided now to blow the whistle on itself. Certainly the country is brimming with new confidence after achieving its goals — athletic as well as many others — at the Beijing Games. And a vast sports system is in place to assure that China, having surpassed the United States in Olympic athletics, will remain on top eternally.

When the system arrived with the new millennium, it was revolutionary. It replaced an extraordinarily insular one that had produced world-class athletes in virtual secrecy, but often left them unprepared for the rigors of international competition. Now, not only do Chinese athletes compete abroad on a regular basis, but foreign coaches are being imported to hasten progress in sports like soccer, baseball and basketball, where China lags behind the world elite.

There is also a pragmatic consideration at work here. In order to compete internationally, countries are being required to provide age documentation at earlier stages in its athletes’ developments and far in advance of major competitions. In other words, athletes now need pedigrees. No longer can they be sprung out of hiding at major competitions as China did in the 1990s — famously but ultimately scandalously — with its record-smashing women distance runners known as “Ma’s Army.”

This confessional stage is no more likely to be a precursor of some great moral awakening in China’s sports programs than the Beijing Games proved to be, as so many hoped it would, a harbinger of an improved era in human rights there. Then again no country — certainly not the United States with its succession of doping scandals — commands sufficient moral authority to lead in this arena. So any housecleaning in sports, however piecemeal, must be welcomed.

Other GlobalPost sports stories by Mark Starr:

When the outside world intrudes

Baseball's Olympic banishment

Does the Super Bowl define America?