Documents surface contradicting age of third Chinese gymnast

Birth dates found in online documents have raised questions about the age of another Chinese gymnast -- bringing the total to three, or half the women's team expected to contend for a gold medal, who may be too young to compete in the Beijing Olympics.

Yang Yilin, a medal contender in the all-around and uneven bars, was born Aug. 26, 1993, according to the 2004, 2005 and 2006 registration lists previously posted on the Web site of the General Administration of Sport of China. That would make Yang only 15 later this month. Gymnasts have to be 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible for the Games.

In the 2007 registration list, however, Yang's birthday is listed as Aug. 26, 1992, making her eligible to compete.

Similar concerns have already been raised about the ages of He Kexin, a gold-medal favorite on uneven bars, and Jiang Yuyuan.

Chinese gymnastics officials did not immediately respond to a fax from The Associated Press asking for documentation of Yang's age and an explanation of the discrepancy.

Asked about the records that appear to call Yang's age into question, International Gymnastics Federation secretary general Andrei Gueisbuhler said he couldn't comment without seeing them.

"If I don't have written proof of something ... we have to take for granted the passports that we've seen and have been checked by the IOC are OK," Gueisbuhler said.

Though the International Olympic Committee was in contact with the gymnastics federation and Chinese officials over the eligibility questions, president Jacques Rogge said Saturday it was clearly a FIG issue.

"The IOC relies on the international federations, who are exclusively responsible for the eligibility of athletes," Rogge said. "It's not the task of the IOC to check every one of the 10,000 athletes."

The team gold medal is expected to be contested by two countries: China and the United States, and He and Yang have the potential to give the Chinese a sizable advantage.

Both have scored 17s on the uneven bars this season, while only one American, Nastia Liukin, has done the same. In team finals, three gymnasts compete on each event and all three scores count.

But Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, said the Americans aren't concerned with who China has in its lineup.

"This is not a USA Gymnastics issue," he said. "This is an IOC and FIG issue."

Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s, after the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 to protect young athletes from serious injuries. The minimum age was raised to its current 16 in 1997.

North Korea was barred from the 1993 world championships after FIG officials discovered that Kim Gwang Suk, the gold medalist on uneven bars in 1991, was listed as 15 for three years in a row. Romania admitted in 2002 that several gymnasts' ages had been falsified, including Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu.

Even China's own Yang Yun, a double bronze medalist in Sydney, said during an interview aired on state broadcaster China Central Television that she was 14 in 2000.

But questions about the current Chinese team have been particularly fierce. The New York Times first reported the suspicions about He and Jiang, and the AP also has found documents that indicate the two might be too young to compete.

He's birthdate is listed as Jan. 1, 1994 in the 2005, 2006 and 2007 registration lists found by the AP. She is not found on the 2004 list. A list of competitors at a 2007 provincial competition shows Jiang with an Oct. 1, 1993, birthdate.

There are also possible inconsistencies involving alternate Sui Lu. The 2004 and 2005 registration lists include an athlete named Sui Lu who was born on April 1, 1993. In the 2006 and 2007 lists, however, the birthday is given as April 1, 1992, and the Chinese character for her first name "Lu" is different from the one used previously.

"Not to do anything about that, this is ridiculous," said longtime gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, who will be part of NBC's broadcast team in Beijing and whose wife, Martha, is now the coordinator of the U.S. team. "It's just as grave and just as brutal like cheating with doping."

Officials with the Chinese Gymnastics Association have maintained that all of its gymnasts are of age to compete in Beijing, saying they applied for passports for the athletes "according to all valid legal identification cards" provided by local governments where each athlete lives. They also provided photocopies of He and Jiang's passports, which were issued in July 2007 and March 2006.

He's birth date is listed as Jan. 1, 1992, Jiang's as Nov. 1, 1991.

"The International Gymnastics Federation strictly verified their passports and confirmed that their ages met the age rules for participating in the world championship, World Cup and Olympics," the association said in a statement.

The association also provided faxed photocopies of He and Jiang's national ID cards. The listed birth dates and the ID numbers, which incorporate birth dates, match the gymnasts' passport information.

The association did not provide photocopies of the back sides of the ID cards, which would show when they were issued, but they appear to have been issued in the past two years.

Asked to explain the birthdates on the registration lists, the association said discrepancies were often found in online documents. In fact, the association said it asked local authorities in late 2007 to examine online competition registrations because of discrepancies.

Karolyi said official documents are meaningless in a totalitarian society.

"A passport does nothing. Passports, at this point in China, is nothing. They can do anything," he said. "I don't believe you have to be a child psychologist or doctor to look at those particular girls and say, `Wait a minute. These are kids.' They are not 16 years old. Not a doubt in my mind."

Nevertheless, He, Jiang and Yang are expected to be on the floor next Sunday when qualifying begins.

"You can test for lots of drugs, but there's really no carbon-dating," Olympic gold medalist Bart Conner said. "Other than believing what they say, where is the truth if you have to look for some independent source? I don't know."