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BEIJING 2008

China's big moment only raises more questions

August 13, 2008|HELENE ELLIOTT

Beijing

They looked like kids playing dress-up, their eyes accentuated with pastel eyeshadow and glitter, their hair pulled back with colorful barrettes in the shape of ovals and stars. The blush on their cheeks was applied 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 14, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Olympic gymnastics: Helene Elliott's column on the women's gymnastics team competition in Wednesday's Beijing 2008 section said Alicia Sacramone fell off the balance beam during her dismount. Sacramone fell off while trying to mount.

It's difficult to write about female athletes who compete in sports that put a premium on small, compact bodies. Calling them tiny seems disrespectful and sexist. They're athletes who happen to be small, no less skilled 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, winning the team gold medal today with 188.900 points, to 186.525 for the U.S. and 181.525 for Romania. Russia was fourth with 180.625.

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. Cheng Fei, the final perfomer, 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 every day.

Liang Chow, a Chinese native who coaches U.S. standout Shawn Johnson, gracefully and smilingly conceded that China deserved to win.

Asked if he believes the Chinese team members are 16 -- the age minimum to compete in the Olympics or world championships -- his expression became stern.

"I don't want to make any comment on that because that's not in my area," he said. "I believe the officials will deal with it. Leave it at that."

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

Pushing gymnasts to perform bigger and more dangerous tricks is a noble idea. This is its downside. The elegance of the sport has largely been obliterated by 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 Yuyuan, He Kexin, and Yang Yilin -- have been questioned based on conflicts between online registration records and birthdates on their government-issued passports. Gymnasts must turn 16 in the year of the Olympics or world championships to be eligible for that competition, but records provided for lower-level events showed all three are 14.

FIG, the federation that governs international gymnastics, has 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, anyway, so eager has it been to praise its Chinese hosts for reasons both merited and arguable.

Bela Karolyi, the former gymnastics guru in Romania and the U.S. and now a TV commentator, has been outspoken in saying the Chinese girls are too young and called them "half-people."

His wife, Martha, coordinator of the U.S. women's team, was more cautious. "I have no proof" that they are underage, she said, "so I cannot make an affirmation."

But she did allow that "it could possibly" be true, adding, "If it's true it's totally unfair. Certain countries go by the rules."

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.

On balance beam their nerves showed. Cheng fell off and Deng Linlin wobbled noticeably twice. Li Shanshan was unsteady on a turn. But the Americans' nerves betrayed them on the beam too.

Alicia Sacramone, who's a few months short of 21 and looks mature enough to be the mother of some of the Chinese girls, fell off on her dismount and wobbled while working her way down the four-inch-wide beam. Nastia Liukin wobbled but stayed aloft. Only Shawn Johnson seemed immune, surefooted and strong as she scored a 16.175.

Sacramone stumbled badly on floor exercise, ending up on her rump and stepping out of bounds. Martha Karolyi later said Sacramone had been distracted before her beam routine by being forced to wait too long, but that sounded like sour grapes.

The U.S. women would have had a hard time winning even if they were perfect, having lost Samantha Peszek to an ankle injury in training and with Chellsie Memmel available only on the uneven bars also because of a bad ankle. But that brought home the point that gold would not be theirs.

"We're very happy with silver. Gold definitely would be better, but we're very happy we got an Olympic medal," Liukin said.

Said Johnson: "They had a great meet and a great day. They deserved the gold medal. Give us another day and maybe we could come out on top."

It was a fine spectacle, enthralling at times and occasionally awe-inspiring.

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. Fun to watch, but not fully satisfying.

--

Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.

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