Less than two weeks before the Beijing Olympics, a potential scandal involving at least two of China's most high-profile sports is threatening to tarnish those Games.
According to documents obtained by The Times, two Chinese gymnasts appear to be younger than once listed by the Chinese federation while a diver appeared to have her age changed to be eligible for last year's world championships, though she would be eligible for the Olympics.
The issue of age for gymnasts He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan was first reported Sunday by the New York Times. Additional documents indicate the practice is more widespread. Diver Chen Ruolin appeared to have her age raised in time for her to win a gold and a silver medal at the 2007 world meet in Melbourne, Australia.
One indication that the Beijing government apparently was moving quickly to douse any hint of scandal came late Saturday night, Los Angeles time, as some relevant Chinese websites were taken down and parts of one message board were erased.
As in the U.S., there are message boards in China where fans chat and gossip about the most popular sports.
Particularly women's gymnastics.
For well over a year, Chinese fans have been intrigued by the quick rise of uneven bars performer He Kexin, and not only for her rising scores of over 17.000 but also about her rising age.
As reported by the New York Times, there have been open discussions in gymnastics circles about the proper ages for some of the Chinese women gymnasts, especially He. Since 1997, international gymnastics rules have required that a gymnast must turn 16 during an Olympic year to be eligible for the Games.
According to official Chinese registration lists that had been available on the Internet, He may be only 14.
In fact, according to an Associated Press report of a Nov. 3, 2007, speech by Liu Peng, director of general administration of sport for China, there was no question she was too young. "The 13-year-old uneven-bar gymnast He Kexin," Liu said, "who defeated national team athlete Yang Yilin -- she just won the bronze medal in the world championships -- has demonstrated her ability." To be eligible for the Chinese City Games where Liu made his remarks, documents show athletes must be over 13 but under 15.
And gymnastics is not the only sport in which Chinese athletes' birth dates seem changeable. The Los Angeles Times has received records for female diver Chen Ruolin that indicated her birth date as April 26, 1994, changed in 2007.
As reported by the New China (Xinhua) news agency on July 18, Chen was born Dec. 12, 1992, in the Jiangsu province.
But according to a 2003 Chinese national diving registration list that still could be found online as of Sunday night, Chen was born on April 26, 1994. Her birth date remained the same in 2004, 2005 and 2006 but on the 2007 list, it was changed to Dec. 12, 1992.
If the 1994 birth date is correct, Chen competed illegally at the 2007 world championships, where she won a silver medal in the 10-meter platform and a gold medal with teammate Jia Tong in the 10-meter synchronized platform.
In diving, competitors must turn 14 during the year they compete in any official World Cup, world championships or Olympics. So Chen is eligible for these Olympics but might not have been when she competed at the 2007 world championships.
Asked whether the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games was concerned with the questions about possibly underage Chinese athletes, spokesman Sun Weide said today, "You have to check your facts. You have to check with the Chinese Olympic Committee."
Attempts to reach a Chinese Olympic Committee spokesperson were unsuccessful.
Zhou Jihong, China's national diving team leader, said, "Those newspaper reports about Chen's [being] underage is not true. We can fax to you Chen Ruolin's birth certificate and ID card to prove it. We don't want the rumor [to affect] our athletes two weeks before the Olympic Games."
Ron O'Brien, U.S. high performance director for diving and former coach of Greg Louganis, said, "We've always felt that it's hard to document China. We take them at their word that they're not breaking any rules. If [Chen] is not of age and was illegally entered into the world championships, then it is up to FINA to deal with it. Our team and plan are firmly in place. Nothing will change that."
FINA is the international governing body of diving, swimming and water polo.
USC diving coach Hongping Li, who is from China, said Sunday that while he couldn't speak about Chen personally, the shifting birth dates for some Chinese athletes does not surprise him.
"It is a thing where if it is believed by the athlete to be done for the glory of the country, if it is best for the country, then it should be done. Am I surprised this might be done? No."
Stories in China about uneven bars athlete He have been open about listing her age as 14.