Look at the girl in the center of this picture. She’s Deng Linlin. Does she look 16 to you? To be eligible for the ongoing Olympics in Beijing, a female gymnast must turn that age no later than sometime this year. In gymnastics, prepubescent female competitors have a distinct advantage over older ones — their bones are more supple, they are lighter, they have less fear.
Deng in the picture is all smiles. She and her comrades made history by winning gold last Wednesday, edging out the slightly favored Americans in the women’s team gymnastics competition. Officially, the sweet Ms. Deng was born on April 21, 1992. But the 4-foot-6, 68 pound wisp may have come into this world on May 22, 1993 — or perhaps even later.
Ms. Deng is not the only Chinese gymnast with multiple birthdates. In fact, the spotlight this year has fallen on three of her teammates: Jiang Yuyuan, Yang Yilin, and the especially infamous He Kexin. China’s official Xinhua News Agency listed Ms. He’s age as 13 on its website just nine months before the Olympics began. China Daily, the country’s official English-language paper, said on May 23 she was 14. Records on an official Chinese website show that Ms. He was born on January 1, 1994. Liu Peng, director of general administration of sport in China, last November publicly said that she was 13. Of course, none of this matters now — during the middle of February Beijing issued to Ms. He a passport showing her date of birth as January 1, 1992, thus making her eligible to compete. And a Chinese gymnastic official dismisses the Xinhua report as “a mistake.”
Yet there is no mistaking what we can see with our own eyes. Chinese coaches tried to hide the ages of the girls with “enough makeup to shame a drag queen,” but no amount of lipstick and eyeliner can hide the fact that the American gymnasts have curves and breasts and the Chinese ones don’t. On average, the girls on the Chinese team are 3.5 inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter than their American counterparts. Bela Karolyi, the legendary coach of gold-medalists Nadia Comaneci of Romania and Mary Lou Retton of the United States, calls the members of China’s team “half-people.” They still have their baby teeth, he points out. Take a close look at the picture of the charming Ms. Deng, and you will find that she’s missing a tooth — her permanent ones have not all grown in. Yet she too is now listed in official records as — don’t be surprised — 16.