Underaged gymnast forces medal loss

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- China was stripped of the women's gymnastics bronze medal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics on Wednesday for fielding an underage gymnast, with that team medal now going to the United States.

The International Olympic Committee acted after investigations by the sport's governing body determined that Dong Fangxiao was only 14 at the 2000 Games. Gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible.

"I'm really just proud to know that justice prevailed," said Dominique Dawes, a member of the U.S. squad in 2000. "My teammates are very well-deserving of the bronze medal, and I'm sure each and every one of us will be thrilled. We will cherish it."

Dong's results from Sydney were nullified in February by the International Gymnastics Federation. Because her scores contributed to China winning the team bronze, the FIG recommended that the IOC take the medal back.

As expected, the IOC executive board upheld the request and formally stripped the medal on the first day of a two-day meeting in Dubai.

The U.S. women, who had been fourth, move up to the bronze.

The IOC said Dong was also stripped of her sixth-place result in the individual floor exercises and seventh place in the vault.

Calls to the Chinese Gymnastics Association and the media officers for the Chinese gymnastics team went unanswered Wednesday. Dong now lives in New Zealand with her husband.

The IOC ordered China's national Olympic committee to return the team medals "as soon as possible" so they can be reallocated to the U.S. team.

"I never imagined in all my years of gymnastics that a decade following one of my Olympic Games I'd actually get a medal possibly shipped to me in the mail," said Dawes, who will now have one gold and three bronzes from the 1992, 1996 and 2000 Games.

The IOC also told the Chinese to "ensure, by all means, that the athletes and officials of its delegation comply with all rules and regulations [of the international federation] particularly with regard to age limits."

"Respecting the minimum age of our gymnasts remains a priority and I am committed to safeguarding the health of our athletes," FIG president Bruno Grandi said in a statement.

Questions about Dong's eligibility arose during the FIG's investigation into the ages of China's team that won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games. Media reports and Internet records suggested some of the girls on that team could have been as young as 14.

The FIG cleared the Beijing Games gymnasts in October 2008 after Chinese officials provided original passports, ID cards and family registers showing all of the gymnasts were old enough to compete.

But the FIG said it wasn't satisfied with "the explanations and evidence provided to date" for Dong and a second gymnast, Yang Yun.

Dong's accreditation information for the Beijing Olympics, where she worked as a national technical official, listed her birthday as Jan. 23, 1986. That would have made her 14 in Sydney -- too young to compete. Her birth date in the FIG database is listed as Jan. 20, 1983.

Dong's blog also said she was born in the Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac, which dates from Feb. 20, 1985, to Feb. 8, 1986.

FIG investigators didn't find sufficient evidence to prove Yang, who also won a bronze medal on uneven bars in 2000, was underage. She received a warning from the FIG.

"We are extremely grateful that the IOC and the FIG have taken such a thorough look at the issues that were raised in Beijing," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "It serves the best interests of sports to make sure there's always a fair field of play."

The bronze medal salvages what had been a disappointing Olympics for the U.S. women. The squad -- Dawes, Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzscher, Kristin Maloney, Elise Ray and Tasha Schwikert -- left Sydney empty-handed, the only time since 1976 the American women had failed to win a single Olympic medal. The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games.

"Sydney was a beautiful Olympics, they did a great job. But it was hard when people would ask, 'What medal did you guys get?' " Schwikert said. "It's going to be nice to say, 'We did get a medal. We got the bronze in Sydney.' "