Age questions raised over two female Chinese gymnasts

BEIJING -- Two female Chinese gymnasts, including a gold-medal favorite, might be too young to participate in the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Several online records and reports show He Kexin, the host nation's top competitor on uneven bars, and Jiang Yuyuan might not yet be 16, the minimum age for Olympic eligibility. Both were chosen for China's team last week.

On the Web site of the Chengdu Sports Bureau -- Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province in southwest China -- a file dated January 2006 shows He Kexin as being born Jan. 1, 1994.

Most recently, a May 23 story in the China Daily newspaper, the official English-language paper of the Chinese government, had He Kexin's age as 14.

The newspaper story begins: "The 14-year old newcomer to the national team, who was recruited last year, has raised a lot of eyebrows recently after she broke two world records on the uneven bars in as many months."

The New York Times raised questions about the athletes' ages in a story Saturday. And Chinese officials provided the newspaper with copies of passports indicating both gymnasts are 16.

But in a speech on Nov. 3, 2007, in the central city of Wuhan, Liu Peng, director of general administration of sport for China, said: "The 13-year-old uneven-bar gymnast He Kexin, who defeated national team athlete Yang Yilin -- she just won the bronze medal in the world championships -- has demonstrated her ability."

To be eligible for the Cities Games where Liu made his remarks, Chinese documents show athletes must be over 13, but under 15.

Zhang Peiwen, spokesman for the Chinese Gymnastics Association, told China's state-run Xinhua news agency that both gymnasts were over 16.

"Our Olympic squads were recently named and we registered their ages according to their ID cards or other legal certificates presented by their regional gymnastics associations, which show they all are over the minimum age for the Olympics," Zhang said.

Zhang questioned the credibility of data found on the Internet or in newspapers.

"There is a lot of online information and reports," he said. "We haven't got the time to check every piece, but everybody knows not all of them are reliable."

The New York Times reported International Gymnastics Federation officials acknowledged questions about He's age had been raised and asked the Chinese for clarification in May.

"We heard these rumors, and we immediately wrote to the Chinese gymnastics federation," Andre Gueisbuhler, the secretary general of the international federation, told the newspaper. "They immediately sent a copy of the passport, showing the age, and everything is OK. That's all we can check.

"As long as we have no official complaint, there is no reason to act, if we get a passport that obviously is in order."

The American and Chinese women are expected to battle for the team gold medal when the Beijing Games begin Aug. 8.

He is one of the few athletes in the world who has scored more than a 17 under the new scoring system. Using He and Yang Yilin, who also has scored a 17 on bars, the Chinese hope to use the uneven bars to build up a big advantage in the team competition.

The Americans, who won the 2007 world championships team title, have only one gymnast, Nastia Liukin, who has achieved a 17 on bars.

If gymnasts He and Jiang are under age, it would be yet another black eye for China in the buildup to the games.

In June, Chinese swimmer Ouyang Kunpeng and coach Feng Shangbao were permanently banned from the sport after Ouyang tested positive for anabolic steroids. Wrestler Luo Meng and his coach also were barred for life for a doping violation by the athlete.

The Chinese government is working feverishly to present a positive image of an open, friendly, progressive nation.

But visa restrictions, air pollution, freedom of the press issues and a problem-filled torch relay have presented a far different image to the world.