Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Monday, September 08, 2008

Interesting discussion about the Olympics on Dialogue. Jo Kent from ABC brought up the question some in the foreign media have had regarding the age of the Chinese female gymnasts. Many have commented that one or more of them look quite young.

I remember when Nadia Com─âneci made history with a perfect score at the Montreal Olympics. She was doing stuff that looked almost miraculous. She was 14 years old. That isn't legal now. Gymnasts are supposed to be at least 16. With this in mind, there are two issues creating a cloud over the Chinese gold count at the Beijing Olympics.

The first is visual. Those kids look very, very young. There are a couple of them that just don't look 16. So people started asking questions and doing some investigation. Upon investigation, several documents surfaced that showed the birth dates as different from the dates that were presented for the Olympics. As far as I know, every available listing of He Kexin's birth date before the Olympics states it as January 1, 1994. The date of January 1st catches my attention, because it strongly suggests that they may not know the exact date of her birth. But again, every time He Kexin's name has appeared, her date of birth has always been listed as January 1, 1994. Until the Olympics. Then it suddenly appeared as January 1, 1992.

Gao Zhikai insisted that nothing more could be said about the issue, because the government has provided birth certificates for the girls, and the birth certificate is the proof of age. But nobody is suggesting that the girls don't have birth records. They are charging that the records have been falsified. So the proof that they have not been falsified is that they exist? This isn't going to wash. He stated that in America, the birth record is also the proof of age. He seemed to be suggesting that in America, the birth records would be accepted. Not even close. In the United States, if documents appeared that contradicted the birth records, this would be prima facie evidence that the birth records had been falsified. There would have to be a complete investigation, because the media would insist on it. In China, there will not be a media uproar, of course, because the government controls the media. I do not say this to suggest that America is a more honest society. But it is a more open society, so certain types of dishonesty are harder to hide if someone has an interest in exposing them.

China has a well established pattern of age fixing. The 2000 Summer Olympic Games were held in Sydney, Australia. Chinese gymnast Yang Yun, who won bronze medals there as a "sixteen-year-old," was later presented to a national television audience as having only been 14 at the time.

And regarding age fixing in country, Hannah Beech of TIME reports the following:Earlier this year, a 14-year-old table-tennis prodigy in eastern Shandong province told me quite cheerfully that she competes as an 11-year-old in provincial and regional age-ranked competitions. Her national identity card, she said, had been changed to reflect the false birth-date. "It's no big deal," she insisted. "Most of my friends do it, too." Her coach, who hadn't been present when I interviewed the girl, denied any age-fixing at the school, although he said he was quite sure it happened at other academies.But the biggest part of the problem, really, is not China. It is the fact that the agencies responsible for monitoring these kinds of things seem very hesitant to get involved. The IOC investigated this controversy only after intense pressure. And when pressed about the issue, Bruno Grandi, president of the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) said, "The Internet is not a document." That's true. The Internet is not a document. But it is a vehicle for making people aware of documents that might otherwise have been hidden. His point should be taken. We should not believe empty charges merely because they are mentioned on some blog. We should go to the sources referenced, and check documents ourselves. Nevertheless, his dismissal is not encouraging. The documents in question are not American documents. They are not British documents. They are not German documents, or French documents, or IOC documents. They are official Chinese documents. Forgive me for saying it one more time--as far as I know, every pre-Olympic listing posted on the Internet shows He Kexin's date of birth as January 1, 1994.

Under intense pressure, the FIG does seem to have backtracked on it's initial reticence. They now say that they are investigating the matter. We'll see.

The question of cheating in China is a personal one for me, because I live in China, and it upsets me to see China portrayed as a nation of people who don't play fair. There are lots of honest people in this country. The fuwuyuan who comes running out of the coffee bar after me, holding my flash disk, which I had dropped on the floor, "Grandpa Marx! You forgot something!" The young man who comes running up to me, breathless, as I am parking my bicycle. He is holding my backpack, which had fallen off a few hundred yards back. The wait staff in restaurants who compensate for my absent mindedness by keeping the stuff I leave behind and presenting it to me the next time I show up; the cab driver who voluntarily shuts his meter off early after having made a wrong turn.

In my opinion, what China needs to do is to set up an independent commission to investigate this matter. Some in the foreign media would laugh at the thought of the Chinese investigating themselves, but I have faith in the Chinese people. Sure there are cheaters. But as I said, there are also many decent, honest people.

I would have full confidence in a commission made up of people like the ones I mentioned. And if this commission could be fully independent (which, admittedly, would probably be a first), I am optimistic that China could get to the bottom of this, and find out what is really going on. I am not talking about merely chasing rumours. I am talking about seeking truth from facts. And when I say, "seeking truth from facts," I do not mean seeking "truth" from "facts." I mean seeking truth from facts. It really does matter what the truth is. Right now, there is still much fog surrounding this controversy. But one thing we know for sure. This issue is not going to go away.

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