So who cares if He, a she, is under the competitive age limit

Jul 29, 2008 7:01 PM

Burnt Offerings by Stan Bergstein | The He, it turns out, is a she, and an underage one at that.

Or perhaps not. And who cares, or should?

Of all the silly bantering accompanying the soon-to-be-controversial Summer Olympics in Beijing, the silliest is the made-for-the-press controversy over whether He Kexin, a tiny young female gymnast on the Chinese Olympic team, is 14 or 16 years old.

She is a little Dresden doll, perhaps 4 feet 5 at most, and weighing probably 65 pounds shower wet. Why this should concern anyone except U.S. gymnasts who will have to beat her on the uneven bars to win gold in Beijing is a mystery, except that Olympic rules say competitors must be 16 years old.


Why put a premium on age? If anyone can develop skills to be good enough to compete at the Olympic level in anything, they should be welcomed with open arms, without some bureaucrat imposing age restrictions or size restrictions or any other barriers to competition.

There is a reason for concern on the part of U.S. gymnasts, however. Last year, at the world championships, the U.S. and China locked horns in gymnastics, with the Americans winning by 95-hundredths of a point.

Two of the brightest young Chinese stars He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are listed as being 16 by the Chinese Olympic team, and have passports that say so.

American reporters, following tips, probed into Chinese records no mean feat in itself and discovered regional news clips and other reports listing Hes birthdate as Jan. 1, 1994, making her 14. That date also appeared in an intercity competition report in Chengdu and in the English language China Daily, but her passport, issued last February, shows she was born Jan. 1, 1992, making her a legal 16.

Her teammate, Jiang Yuyuan, also has a passport showing her as being 16, but she was reported to be 15 in a number of press reports.

We can understand a furor if an athlete was over a junior age limit, as happened in Little League baseball in New York some years ago, but we fail to grasp the significance of some younger prodigy being deprived of competitive rights against older rivals.

What if a golfing phenomenon, another Tiger Woods, showed up at 13 or 14 and could drive far enough to play with pros, or, much more likely, a young swimmer show up who could compete with older girls or boys, or even women or men. Should they be barred by the calendar?

We hope He and Jiang clear the bureaucratic hurdles that may lie ahead, and we will be rooting for them if they do, regardless of whose slipper-enclosed toes they may step on when they tread on the Olympic mats.

Meanwhile, the most perplexing event in sports, except for figuring out the point standings for the College Bowl games, remains the Tour de France, the most arduous competition in world sports. It ground to its conclusion last weekend, 22 days and 2,175 miles after its start. Not only is the strategy incomprehensible to the average sports fan, but now reporters covering the event have abandoned nationalities to report leaders by team names, almost all of them unknown or of no interest to American readers. We assume you would be more interested in knowing where Carlos Sastre came from Spain rather than that he was a member of the CSC Saxo Bank team, or that Cadel Evans represented Silence-Lotto, or that Sastre entered the final day behind Evans in the 33-mile final time trial but still held a 1 minute, 5 second lead over him in overall standings.

Worrying about who was on EPO was distressing enough. Worrying about who would win the final time trial after pumping up and down all over France, including the Alps, for three weeks, was more than any fan should endure. Were happy for Sastre that he won.

We gag when we read that horse racing past performances are too complex for the average fan to follow, and then see lavish and increasingly valuable news space given to cyclists climbing the Alps in individual and team strategies understood only by other cyclists. We know there is a beauty to all this, but somehow it escapes us, and I have lived in a city where the signage is for bicycles, not cars. If you cant make Paris, try Tucson. Well give you a yellow jersey, without time trials, if you miss hitting the first 500 cyclists you encounter.