"She was just in diapers"

Are underage female gymnasts being allowed to compete at the Beijing Olympics?

Published July 28, 2008 8:00PM (EDT)

This morning I wrote about the ridiculous lengths to which some female Olympic athletes must go to prove they’re not men in disguise. But you know what they don’t have to work very hard to prove? That they're actually old enough to compete. After China announced its women's gymnastics team on Friday, questions immediately arose over whether two of the members meet the minimum age requirement of 16.

Instead of requiring invasive testing to rule out deception, as the gender standard does, the age standard is considered satisfied if an athlete produces a passport stating she's over 16. But as legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi told the New York Times, a Chinese passport isn't necessarily compelling evidence. "The paperwork is changed just too good. In a country like that, they're experts at it." Karolyi, who defected from Romania in 1981, knows a little something about both authoritarian governments and underage gymnasts. According to the Times, "He recalled Kim Gwang Suk, a North Korean gymnast who showed up at the 1991 world championships with two missing front teeth." At the time, Kim was 4-foot-4, 62 pounds and supposedly 15 years old (then the minimum age). Karolyi put her at no older than 11 -- which might be why the North Korean Gymnastics Federation continued to claim she was 15 for three years in a row. Says Karolyi, "Oh, come on, she was just in diapers and everyone could see that, just like some of the Chinese girls are now."

Much has been written about the pressures on young female gymnasts to remain as small and lean as possible, and many elite competitors do look much younger than they are. But when multiple news reports and official registration lists of Chinese gymnasts say these girls are 14, not 16, the International Gymnastics Federation really ought to do more than check a passport and shrug.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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