Sport sullied by tiny kids

OTHER VOICES

Smaller, younger gymnasts do more, but at what cost?

Women's Gymnastics

Beijing 2008

August 14, 2008|By HELENE ELLIOTT

BEIJING - They looked like kids playing dressup, their eyes accentuated with pastel eyeshadow and glitter, their hair pulled back with colorful barrettes in the shape of stars. The blusher on their cheeks was applied much too generously, producing an effect that was garish instead of girlish.

If the aim of the resident makeup artist was to make the members of the Chinese women's gymnastics team appear sophisticated, it backfired. Badly.

They looked young. Very young.

But oh, can they twist and tumble and fly from top to bottom on the uneven bars like the lightest of feathers.

It's difficult to write about female athletes who compete in sports that put a premium on small, compact body shapes. Calling them tiny seems disrespectful and sexist. They're athletes who happen to be small, no less an athlete than a basketball player or swimmer.

These Chinese gymnasts are tiny.

Pre-teen tiny. Haven't-lost-all-their-baby-teeth-tiny.

But they are Olympic champions, defeating the U.S. for the team gold medal with 188.900 points, to 186.525 for the U.S. and 181.525 for Romania.

The U.S. team finished before its Chinese counterparts, who needed to score better than 43.425 on their final event - floor exercise - to win. The three girls easily exceeded that, with Deng Linlin, Jiang Yuyuan and Cheng Fei totaling 45.80. Cheng, the final performer, needed to score better than 13.075, which she probably could have done in her sleep.

Or her nap. She looked young enough to still require one.

If the gold medals around the necks of the Chinese girls weighed almost as much as they do, the international gymnastics federation has only itself to blame.

Pushing for gymnasts to perform bigger and more dangerous tricks is a noble idea, but it has a big downside. The elegance of the sport has largely been lost, obliterated by armies of stick-figured girls who can twist their bodies more tightly, soar higher, tumble faster and score more points than girls who are on the far side of puberty.

The ages of at least three Chinese women - Jiang, He Kexin, and Yang Yilin - have been questioned based on conflicts between registration records that were found online and the ages that were listed on their government-issued passports. Gymnasts must turn 16 in the year of the Olympics to be eligible, but records provided for lower-level events showed all three are 14.

FIG, the federation that governs international gymnastics, said it accepts the Chinese passports as valid. The International Olympic Committee has said the same. If it truly had any doubts the IOC would probably have remained silent, so eager has it been to praise its Chinese hosts for reasons both merited and arguable.

Whatever their ages, the Chinese women were spectacular on the uneven bars, with He scoring a 16.850, Yang a 16.800 and Jiang a 15.975. They seemed carefree, with Jiang waving to the crowd and Cheng happily fixing her teammates' eye makeup.

They were also solid on vault, never the team's strong point because the women generally lack the muscle to get much force as they hit the vault table and spring into the air.

But it wasn't women's gymnastics. It was, in too many cases, girls pretending to be women, sacrificing sophistication and style for eye-popping tricks.

Helene Elliott writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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