Investigation: 1 Chinese gymnast underage in 2000

VANCOUVER: The international gymnastics officials who cleared China's team of age violations during the Beijing Games now say the country should return an Olympics bronze medal it won 10 years ago because one of its athletes was only 14 at the time.

The International Gymnastics Federation "cancelled" all of Dong Fangxiao's results from the 2000 Sydney Games and recommended that the International Olympic Committee strip the Chinese of their medal. Yang Yun, who won a bronze on uneven bars, also was suspected of being as young as 14 in Sydney, but there was insufficient evidence to prove her age had been falsified. FIG, instead, gave her a warning.

The IOC has said it would take "necessary measures" if any gymnasts were found to be underage. The United States finished fourth in Sydney.

"We can confirm that we have received the ruling from the FIG in the case concerning Dong Fangxiao and Yang Yun, and we take due note of their decision," IOC spokesman Mark Adams said. "Clearly, we need to take time to consider the findings before the executive board can consider the matter. We would like to thank the FIG for their work and we would refer further inquiries to them."

China must pay the costs of the investigations "for not having adequately controlled the birth dates of the gymnasts," the FIG said. The investigation included two days of hearings in December at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. Zhang Haifeng, the Chinese Olympic Committee's press attache at the Vancouver Games, called the decision an "old story."

"That was in 2000. Now is 2010," he said. "This was 10 years ago."

Questions about Dong and Yang's eligibility arose during the FIG's investigation into the eligibility of the Chinese team that won the gold medal at the 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 Yang.

"I'm happy to know that justice is being served," said Dominique Dawes, a member of the U.S. team in 2000. "There are rules in place and, if they are broken, there should be penalties."

Dong's results from the 1999 world championships, where China won a bronze medal and she was sixth in the all-around, also will be wiped out, the FIG said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee declined to comment. Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics, praised the investigation.

"This is an extremely hard issue to try to address," he said. "The FIG has done a very responsible thing."

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. Dong has not denied that, but she refused to answer questions about her age, telling The Associated Press, "I've left the gymnastics team."

Yang, who also won a bronze medal on uneven bars in 2000, said in a June 2007 interview that aired on state broadcaster China Central Television that she was 14 in Sydney.

"At the time I was only 14," she said. "I thought that if I failed this time, I'll do it again next time. There's still hope."

She later told the AP that she had misspoken and declined further comment. The FIG could find nothing else to confirm that she was 14. Documents given to the IOC, the FIG and the Chinese federation list her birthdate as Dec. 2, 1984.

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

Romania admitted some of its gymnasts' ages had been falsified, including Olympic medalists Gina Gogean and Alexandra Marinescu. Gymnasts from the Soviet Union said their birthdates were changed to allow them to compete. And North Korea was banned from the 1993 world championships after FIG discovered Kim Gwang Suk, the 1991 gold medalist on uneven bars, was listed as 15 for three years in a row.

"Maybe as we move forward they will decide we don't need an age restriction and maybe they will start to look at that now. I wouldn't be opposed to it," said Dawes, who was 15 when she competed at the Barcelona Olympics. "It would definitely eliminate any questions of someone's age as an issue.

"I don't care if there are 40-year-olds competing. They should allow the best gymnasts in the world to compete."

To prevent age manipulation, the FIG last year began requiring all junior and senior gymnasts who represent their countries at most international meets to have a license. The licenses include gymnasts' name, sex, country and date of birth, and are their proof of age for their entire career.

"Young gymnasts cannot be manipulated," FIG president Bruno Grandi said in a statement. "Athletes must be protected."