By David Bandurski — More than one and a half years after the Beijing Olympic Games, which came with tougher controls on China’s news media, journalists are daring to speak out (just a bit) on the problems facing China’s national sports system. Bringing the issue back into the spotlight this week is news from the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) that it has concluded its inquiry into the problem of underage Chinese gymnasts.
The FIG has determined that Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao (董芳霄) falsified her age in 2000 so that she would be eligible to compete in the Sydney Olympic Games. The body has recommended that the International Olympic Committee “withdraw the Bronze medal obtained by the Chinese Team including the results of Dong Fangxiao in Sydney.”
The FIG also issued a warning to Sydney competitor Yang Yun (杨云), saying that “concrete and objective evidence” was insufficient to show that Yang’s birth date had been falsified on her official documents to make her eligible for competition, despite Yang’s own statement during an interview on China Central Television in which she said she had been 14 during the Sydney Olympics.
IOC rules specify that female gymnasts must turn 16 during the year of competition in order to be eligible to compete [more on rules from Wikipedia].
Responding to the FIG findings, and to reports in China Youth Daily that women’s gymnastic coach Lu Shanzhen (陆善真) had admitted problems with Dong Fangxiao’s age, the director of the Gymnastics Center of the General Administration of Sport of China, Luo Chaoyi (罗超毅), said yesterday that Dong Fangxiao’s age is a “personal issue” (个人问题).

[ABOVE: Coverage of the FIG decision concerning Dong Fangxiao Sichuan Online today, with a photo of Dong competing in Sydney.]

This dismissive attitude toward the FIG findings is not likely to satisfy Chinese columnists, who have written today and yesterday — almost exclusively in commercial newspapers — about the case as a smear on China’s national image caused by a culture of cheating in national sports.
Writing in the Chongqing Morning Post, columnist Huang Deqiang (黄德强) said that athletes who had committed fraud “were driven not only by a desire for fame and fortune, but by ‘projects of achievement’ undertaken by certain officials.”

These actions were prompted by self-interest, but also in the interest of satisfying the patriotic feelings of the national audience. But these actions hold no positives for the development of Chinese sports. In our view, selling out good faith in exchange for earning a reputation as a ‘sports power’ is a disgrace for the athletes of China.

In yesterday’s edition of the Beijing Morning Post, an editorial on the scandal — which in Chinese has been called “Age-gate” (年龄门) — was provocatively titled, “It’s a Good Thing Only Dong Fangxiao Was Found Out.”
The piece, by journalist Liu Yishi (刘奕诗), suggested that age fraud was a common practice in Chinese gymnastics, aided by the national system itself:

I once had a conversation with a world champion female gymnast, and at the time she was concerned about her future path. Not yet 20 years old, her body was clearly beginning to mature, and she was mulling whether or not she should retire. There were younger athletes out there, with more limber bodies . . . And so, when these age scandals happened concerning Dong Fangxiao and other female gymnasts, I understood just how they had ‘been matured’ (被成熟).
That’s right. I said how they had ‘been matured.’ At those times, how could a 13 or 14 year old child really understand what particular steps were necessary to make sure their ages were registered with the International Gymnastics Federation so they would be able to compete? The most common thing journalists hear athletes say is that, “After I joined the national team, everything was done according to instructions from the top.” . . .

“Sports in China is an act of state,” wrote columnist Liu Hongbo (刘洪波) in yesterday’s Southern Metropolis Daily.
Liu said that while the “falsifying of ages in Chinese sports is not a secret, but a more or less openly acknowledged fact,” Chinese sports officials had failed to take responsibility. The result, he said, was a crisis of national credibility. [See our translation of the full editorial below].
These writers are all urging the point that the age scandal is not the mere “personal issue” gymnastics director Luo Chaoyi is making it out to be.
Exactly how widespread and endemic is cheating in Chinese gymnastics? There is little concrete evidence beyond the widespread confusion over a question that should be patently simple — when was an athlete born?
When the age scandal broke ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, I conducted my own search of Chinese media to find out what Chinese newspapers might have reported about the ages of female gymnasts competing that year. My findings on China’s “secret weapon”, He Kexin (何可欣), were quite suggestive, if not conclusive.
China’s official People’s Daily reported in November 2007 that He Kexin was just 13. By the time the Games rolled around, she was was miraculously 15 — and due to turn 16 during the year of competition.
Shortly after my investigation into press coverage of He Kexin, I stumbled across another interesting bit of coverage that I never got around to sharing.
This time it was a Chinese-language piece from the Journal of the Puyang Vocational and Technical College, which I dug out of a China periodicals database. Published in May 2006, and written by Wang Cunhua (王存华), the journal article criticized a national gymnastics system geared to producing younger and younger athletes.
In particular, Wang revealed that the system of local and national-level competition in China — the very system that brought China’s top national gymnasts to the fore — was out of sync with international rules. If that is true, it goes a long way to explaining why China’s top-performing gymnasts should be underage as a matter of course.

The principal reason for lowering ages (低龄化) in China’s female team is the national games system [inside China]. In order that the training of new athletes was pegged to the Olympic strategy, more than 10 years ago the national team made a stipulation concerning participating female athletes: those taking part in individual competition must be 14; and for the 6 who would participate in the team competition, four needed to be 14 years of age, and two could be 13.

The article quoted China Gymnastics Association president Gao Jian (高健), who suggested the whole system of national and city competitions in China needed to be adjusted, so that it was not producing top athletes who were ineligible for international competition.
“In planning for the selection and training of female athletes for an Olympic year, we must make necessary adjustments. And the ages for competition at the city and national level must be changed,” said Gao.
As Wang Cunhua himself explained Gao Jian’s recommendation: “The goal in doing this is first of all to bring the training of talent in line with international [rules], and second to avoid the professionalization of female athletes at too young an age.”
“That female gymnasts are too old at 17 or 18, and that male gymnasts are too old at 25 or 26, this sort of viewpoint must be changed,” Wang wrote in his summary arguments.
The journal article even related a story from Gao Jian about how he had met a former world champion in the airport on the way back from a trip.

I asked what she planned to do next, and she said without hesitation — retire! This made a deep impression on me. At the time, the athlete had only recently turned 16.

Perhaps the most damning detail in the article is a passing reference to the ages of gymnasts who competed in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, who have never to my knowledge come under scrutiny at all.

At the Athens Olympics, a number of youthful 15 year-old women, including Yi Fanye (以范晔), Li Ya (李娅), Zhang Yufei (张育菲) and Wang Tiantian (王恬恬), left a deep impression. Of course, it was not their surpassing technique, but rather that they were like dumplings just dropped from the press. Among the group, the oldest was Zhang Nan (张楠), who was just 16 at the time. And those athletes younger than Zhang Nan were all around 13 years old.

Wang Cunhua seems to be suggesting that China’s national gymnastics team in 2004 was stacked with 13 year olds being passed off as 15 year olds. And his remarks on the structure of the “dumpling press” of national gymnastics in China clue us in to why this might happen.
In the end, Dong Fangxiao and her “personal issue” may become the scapegoat for Chinese gymnastics. But fortunately, for now, Chinese journalists are showing some courage in asking questions about the deeper institutional causes at work.
A translation follows of Liu Hongbo’s column, which appeared in yesterday’s edition of Southern Metropolis Daily.

“Who Should Be Responsible for Athletes Falsifying Their Ages?”
Southern Metropolis Daily
Liu Hongbo (刘洪波)
According to a Xinhua News Agency report, an investigation by the International Federation of Gymnastics confirmed that Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao (董芳霄) falsified her age [in order to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games], and announced that her results from the Sydney Olympics would be nullified. At the same time, Yang Yun (杨云), another competitor from the Sydney Olympics, was issued with a warning, saying evidence was insufficient to prove that she had falsified her age.
The Xinhua News Agency report was quite objective, saying that Dong Fangxiao was listed with the International Federation of Gymnastics as being born on January 20, 1983. But when she worked for the Beijing Olympic Games, her birthdate was given as January 23, 1986 . . .
During the Beijing Olympic Games, the ages of Chinese female gymnasts drew the attention of international public opinion. Eventually, the ages of Chinese gymnasts taking part in the Beijing Olympics were not found to have been falsified. Nevertheless, the problem of ages [of gymnasts] during the Sydney Olympics has now basically been confirmed. And it can be said that the clean image of Chinese gymnastics has been affected.
Yes, the finding by the International Federation of Gymnastics that Dong Fangxiao’s age was falsified indeed impacts the clean image of Chinese gymnastics. Moreover, regardless of any FIG determination, the cleanness of Chinese gymnastics has long been a problem. It’s just that, while a determination had not been made, Chinese gymnastics that had long had issues was still able to put on a clean face.
What is most regrettable is that the determination of Dong Fangxiao’s age was not done by China’s own sports authorities. Even while the Chinese gymnastics team said it would fully cooperate with FIG’s inquiry, FIG’s inquiry was carried out solely on the basis of a number of public doubts, and these doubts never entered the sight of Chinese sports authorities.
Even more regrettable is the fact that after FIG made its determination, Lu Shanzhen (陆善真), the head coach of the women’s gymnastics team and deputy director of the gymnastics center of the General Administration of Sport of China, and the Chinese Gymnastics Association still maintained that FIG “lacks complete proof.” They found the decision “extremely regrettable” (感到非常遗憾), and they said they “reserved the right to further explain [their position] or appeal [the findings].”
I can understand the awkwardness of the situation in which these relevant persons and institutions find themselves, but I cannot understand the attitude with which they have met this scandal.
What exactly is “complete proof”? Even the specific days and months of the birthdays of Chinese athletes are impossible to get clear — there are so many versions and changes, and their student status cards, their athlete registrations, their identification cards, their work permits, all are different. Athletes themselves go back and forth over their own birthdays, and that is a problem . . .
Last year, in response to the FIG investigation, Lu Shanzhen said: “I believe that what the provincial and city sports bureaus have reported are the real ages of the athletes.” Lu emphasized that “the two athletes have not had their ages falsified.”
The question of whether the ages reported by city and provincial sports bureaus are accurate or not, whether the ages of Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun were falsified, or whether ages in Chinese gymnastics or in Chinese sports more broadly are falsified, is not a question of “lacking complete proof” but of whether [authorities] can face the problem head on or not. The falsifying of ages in Chinese sports is not a secret, but a more or less openly acknowledged fact. So long as the fraud is perpetrated with sufficient safeguards, it becomes difficult to detect . . .
Sports in China is an act of state, and not a simple matter of personal interest or a social undertaking. The nationalized sports system (举国体制), gold medal wining strategies and the lyrics that come with victory, “Five-star red flag I am proud of you,” are all functions of this. Therefore, problems in national sports are read and understood as problems of national conduct. Problems like doping and falsifying of ages are basically seen as stains on the nation.
When the nation exercises full authority over sports, it bears full responsibility for the consequences. Instances of fraud on the part of athletes may have personal causes, but when athletic fraud becomes a common occurrence, it is difficult to deny that this is a form of institutionalized behavior.
When fraud emerges openly on the international stage, this potentially generates basic skepticism about information provided by China. This is not about a few gold medals . . . but also impacts general trust of Chinese. For example, the academic degree and achievements you list, your birthdate, your work experience, the papers and work you have done may all be subject to doubt. The testimonials, performance reports and costs provided by [Chinese] companies or organizations might all be seen as lacking in credibility. Statistics provided by the national government might be seen as unreliable.
A society that is powerless to prevent fraud, and which, moreover, tolerates it, will be doubted by international mechanisms of trust. All members of this society of fraud will suffer as a result, and all social relationships will be poisoned.
Sports fraud under the national sports system, in which basic information is falsified and international organizations, the international sports community and the international community are cheated, does serious harm to the country’s reputation, social trust and interpersonal trust . . .
If we cannot even convince others of the ages of our athletes, how can we earn the trust of the world?
(The author is a columnist for Changjiang Daily)

UPDATE, March 3, 2010:
The following is an excerpt from a March 3 editorial in Guangdong’s Nanfang Daily:

The Gymnastics Center cannot shove off responsibility. Even if Dong Fangxiao underreported her age at the time out of ‘personal conduct’ in order to be eligible for competition, cheating the organization, then they [the Center] at the very least were negligent in looking into this, and they should apologize to the people of our country.
It was through Dong Fangxiao’s interview during the Beijing Olympic Games that foreigners discovered [she had] given herself away by dropping the matter on her own feet. It would be far easier for our [government] offices to get at the facts, but clearly, theirs is a case of choosing not to, not of being unable to.
Moreover, if this was a case in which they tailored ages according to some “national need” for medals, then it would simply be normal for someone to want to change their age back once they were retired [from the sport]. If this was the case, then the key factor leading to Dong Fangxiao’s “personal conduct” is still an act of “collective conduct.”
It is not difficult to read the bad temper, and even the stern warning to others, in Director Luo’s remarks [about Dong’s “personal conduct”]. Perhaps, in the view of the Gymnastics Center, if it’s changed it’s changed, and what need is there to change it back? If things go wrong, you take the rap [and they wash their hands of it].
Just as with statistics, changing ages to suit practical demands is perhaps one of our country’s national characteristics — and this is true outside of sports as well. In officialdom, how many people have messed with their ages in order to [get around age limits] and serve a few more years? Just recently, there was the case in which the personnel bureau discovered that the former deputy party secretary of the Communist Youth League in Shijiazhuang City in Hebei, Wang Yali (王亚丽), had “committed fraud to keep a post.” Wang Yali dropped five years off her age before being appointed as deputy secretary . . .

Wu Yue San Ren, “Organization Should Not Sell Out the Individual,” (组织不该出卖个人) [Chinese], Dahe Daily, March 3, 2010
The Gymnastics Center Cannot Push Off Responsibility,” (体操中心不能推却责任) [Chinese], Nanfang Daily, March 3, 2010
Exactly How Old is Dong Fangxiao?” (董芳霄到底多大?) [Chinese], Beijing Evening Post, March 3, 2010
[Posted by David Bandurski, March 2, 2010, 2:48pm HK]

The following is an untranslated commentary from blogger Wu Yue San Ren (五岳散人) from March 3.
来源:大河网 作者:五岳散人 2010年03月03日15:55

David Bandurski

CMP Director

Latest Articles