After the Chinese women’s — or more accurately girl’s — gymnastics team was unveiled to the world at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, many spectators couldn’t help but question just how old these competitors are.
So far, the team has not been phased by accusations that they should “go back to primary school.” “Chinese athletes are usually small and petite,” Shang Chunsong, the captain of the five-woman team, told reporters. “Me and Tan were born in 1996, the rest in 1999 — maybe we look it, but we’re not that young.”
According to SCMP, Fan Yilin, another Chinese gymnast, added that: “The first one of the US team is even younger than us,” referring to Lauren Hernandez, who was born in 2000.
The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) mandates that to compete in the Olympics, women gymnasts must be turning 16 on the same year that the games are held and male gymnasts must be turning 18. Dubious looks do have precedent, as scandals concerning the age of competitors have plagued the Chinese national team in the past.
Back in 2008, during the Beijing Olympics, team member He Kexin was rumored to be only 14 at the time that China won gold. The claims were never substantiated. However, China was stripped of its bronze medal back in 2000 during the Sydney Olympics after the team failed to meet age requirements.
To get ahead of suspicion that China is once again trying to dupe officials, the team has assured Olympic officials and the media that all of its members meet the FIG requirements.
The 2016 Chinese women’s gymnastics team is composed of 5 competitors and 3 stand ins: Shang Chunsong (20), Wang Yan (16), Fan Yilin (16), Mao Yi (19) and Liu Tingting (15). The reserves are Liu Jinru (15), Luo Huan (16) and Tan Jiaxin (19).
The majority of the girls have not had any international exposure before Rio, with the notable exception of Fan, who dominated the uneven bars at the 2015 World Championships in Glasgow last November.
Fan said that China’s lack of experience may actually be beneficial. “Many of us start gymnastics at a very young age and although we may lack international exposure compared to athletes from other countries, we are under no pressure and can always mount strong challenges,” she said.
Unfortunately, China lost by a fraction of a point to Russia in Tuesday’s women’s team artistic gymnastics competition final, and had to settle for bronze. The loss comes as a disappointment to China, with Russians acquiring a score of 176.188 compared to China’s 176.003. The unstoppable US Team walked away with the gold.
Mao’s blunder on her floor rotation cost the team a silver medal, as Mao said through teary eyes, “I think the problem is myself.”
Moving on to individual qualifications, neither Fan (who was expected to qualify for uneven bars) or Shang (balance beam) placed in their individual events.
Team manager Ye Zhennan accused judges of treating his team unfairly, explaining that logically it made no sense that they failed to qualify for their individual events, SCMP reports.
“We made two major mistakes in the final but how come our score was still higher than the qualification where we only had one major blunder,” Ye said. “It proved our qualification score was purposefully suppressed by the judges.”
Whether you believe Ye or not, it’s hard not feel sorry for these girls, especially considering the severe rigidity of the training programs they must go through from an early age.
By Robin Winship