The accusations have been flying since before the Olympics began: some of the women (girls really) on the Chinese gymnastics team may be underage. After the team won gold in yesterday's final, Meghan O'Rourke took the debate to next level. In an article in today's Slate, she says that next to the Chinese team, the American girls looked, well, old. So how do even begin thinking about a sport in which twenty-one is already over the hill?Several Chinese news articles dated before the Olympics list birthdates for He Kexin, Jiang Yuyuan and Yang Yilin that would make them younger than the team now says they are — younger than the official Olympic age limit of 16. But a lot of the public reaction to these girls has been based on how they look. A commenter on the US News & World Report website, for instance, writes, "Some looked like they hadn't grown in all of their permanent teeth." As someone who looked 14 until she was 20, I'll be the first to tell you that you can't tell how old someone is by looking. And there's something especially creepy about Americans infantilizing Asian girls. It's almost as though their very underage-ness is exciting. Except to their competitors. "On average 30 pounds heavier and 3.5 inches taller than the doll-sized Chinese gymnasts," O'Rourke writes, "they had the sheen of aging starlets, imbuing the scene with a peculiar Sunset Boulevard feel." She continues with this disturbing analysis:
It was as if, worried that the Chinese might have an unfair advantage, the Americans suddenly became aware of their growing bodies, of the potential for harm, of how easy it is to make a mistake, of how fast time flies and the body stiffens, even for those who can flip through the air and perform ever more complicated release skills on the uneven bars.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether Alicia Sacramone really felt like Norma Desmond on the balance beam, the fact remains that younger gymnasts do have an advantage. The sport "rewards lightness and a low center of gravity," writes O'Rourke, "and the prepubescent tend, quite simply, to be more fearless." Some, including American coach and model of tact and restraint Bela Karolyi, think this means the Olympic Committee should simply remove the age limit. If a 14-year-old gymnast is as good as or better than a 21-year-old, he argues, why shouldn't she get to compete? His argument has a certain logic — if you're 15 in 2008, for instance, you'll have to wait until 2012 to compete. That would make you 19 and, according to O'Rourke's reasoning, SOL for the gold. And if the Olympics this post to showcase the best athletes, should it really matter if the best athletes in a certain sport happen to be 14? I posed this question to my dad recently, and despite his lack of specialized gymnastics knowledge or Olympic affiliation, he said something worth repeating: "I just don't want to watch children compete." To him it seems a little like child labor for a young girl to represent her country in grueling, internationally televised events. I tend to agree, especially since putting 14-year-olds on the world stage invariably results in half-disgusted, half-titillated cooing — "ooh, look how young she looks" — rather than a focus on their athletic prowess. Then again, with the exception of Dara Torres, Oksana Chusovitina, and a few equestrians, most Olympic sports are the province of the very young. Is it naïve to expect gymnastics to be any different? Would you rather see only girls with their drivers' licenses navigate the balance beam, or the best of the best, regardless of age? The Silver Lining [Slate] The Chinese Gymnasts: Age Questions Remain [Time] Public Opinion: Does The Chinese Women's Gymnastics Team Have Underage Members? [U.S. News & World Report] Bela Karolyi Incensed About Underage Rules [NBC]