The average age of Chinese gymnasts was 19.5 in the 2012 London Olympics.
Although, many countries would be proud to boast athletes that happen to be so young, for China, it means, they were nearly four years older than the minimum age of 16 required to compete at the Olympics — an oddity, considering China’s preference for sending younger, smaller women to compete in the sport, and hence, providing grounds for controversy.
China has a rich history of falsifying athletes' ages in the Olympics, especially in gymnastics, where younger athletes have a clear advantage. According to the rules placed in 1997, Olympic gymnasts are required to be at least 16 years old. However, before that, gymnasts only had to be 14 years of age to participate.
At the Beijing Games in 2008, the Chinese women’s gymnastics team made headlines after accusations that some of its members, particularly one He Kexin — whose date of birth on online records showed she was born on January 1, 1994 — was only 14 years old during the Olympics. However, the International Gymnastics Federation cleared the team of any wrongdoing after Chinese Olympic officials produced passport documentation that listed her birthday to be January 1, 1992.
In 2010, it was revealed that Chinese gymnast Yang Yun, who won a bronze medal in the uneven bars in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, was born on December 24, 1984, was actually 14 at the time of the competition. She later confessed in a television interview that she and her coaches had lied about her age and after an investigation into the incident issued, she was found innocent due to lack of sufficient evidence. She was able to keep her bronze medal but her teammate Dong Fangxiao, who was also 14 at the time, and also won bronze, was stripped of her medal.
This year’s Chinese gymnasts, with an average age of 17, is still nearly two years younger than their American counterparts, but so far have stayed away from the recurring age scandal. However, with their past records coupled with the Chinese gymnasts’ small figure and youthful faces, some people are still harboring doubts.
These Chinese gymnastics don't even look 10. Come on now...— Julie Muhlendorf (@julieb289) August 9, 2016
What is the minimum age for women's gymnastics this year? (I'm looking at you, China) #Rio2016— Lucy Brado (@LucyBrado) August 9, 2016
Juxtaposition. From a 41 year old from Uzbekistan, to a Chinese gymnast (age unknown, but probably 10).— C. A. Boehm (@SecretAgentMav) August 15, 2016
I'm sorry but there's no way this Chinese gymnast is over the age of 12 ??— Alex Clay (@amclay5) August 12, 2016
12.633??? The Chinese gymnast just scored her age. ????— Will (@catfan270) August 10, 2016
“The only way to stop this [falsification of ages] is to take off the age limit,” world famous gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi said in 2008. “Take it away. We would have some amazing young athletes on our team, too, but they missed it by a few months. To force honest countries to hold back and allow other countries, not so honest, to push them forward, it's not fair.”
But the age limit exists to protect very young athletes from the heightened physical and mental pressures of competing with the world’s eyes upon them. If they are forced to fabricate lies for months on end to the world, they will only succumb to the added stress. What’s better: to strive for Olympics at an older age so that they can have a moral high ground to compete or to live in constant fear that their medal will be taken away from them?