Saturday, August 16, 2008

The great mismatch: China & the "Olympic spirit"

OK, now I really am shocked.

Doubts have been raised about the age of China's women gymnasts, who pipped America to the gold medal in the team event a couple of days ago. No shit?! They all look about 12. The rules say they have to be at least 16.

It would seem that spring-loaded moppet, He Kexin, is the most egregious offender. A sharp-witted journalist recalled seeing an item on Xinhua News about her last November, after she'd made a big splash at a major domestic gymnastics tournament (beating top gymnast Yang Yilin in the asymmetric bars event); her age was given then as....... 13. The article in question was removed from the website archive this Thursday - but the canny people at the AP had taken a screenshot of it.

As recently as May 23rd this year, the English-language propaganda organ China Daily was giving her age as 14. Guess what? That article is still available online, but the age has just been "corrected" to 16.

Ah, and this is really the kicker for me. In the wake of all the queries and criticisms this week, the Chinese authorities have produced her passport as proof of her age. Her date of birth (not previously mentioned or recorded anywhere??) is given as Jan. 1st 1992. What is she - a racehorse? Doesn't that just reek of a hasty fabrication?

Oh, maybe not. Maybe it's just an odd coincidence. Perhaps I'm just a snarky foreigner, always looking to put China down. That really is her birthday. And of course we shouldn't expect the state-run media here to be at all reliable on the facts about the shining stars of its national sporting firmament. Oh no. All a big misunderstanding.

Yeah, right.

They're all fairly obviously underage. I gather that questions were raised earlier this year in the Chinese media about two of the other three. He Kexin is a child.

China has, I would say, pretty much been caught red-handed cheating. But, since official documentation is so easily faked and modified in this country, it will be just about impossible to prove that. And perhaps no-one can even be bothered to make the effort. The American team seems disinclined to lodge an official protest. (I wonder, is this pure good sportsmanship - an acceptance that they were beaten by better performers, a reluctance to tarnish the image of the Games with a protracted rules dispute? Or is it a more political decision, prompted by the State Department's desire to maintain cordial relations with China?)

China can probably bluff this out, deny, deny, deny, and get away with it.

This would, I think, be a great mistake. This could be a turning point for Beijing's Olympics. If the Chinese authorities came clean, handed back the gold medal voluntarily, crucified (not literally, but you know what I mean) all the coaches and officials complicit in the age-faking, it would be a tremendously powerful statement against cheating, and an inspiring reaffirmation of the Olympic ideal of fair play.

If they don't do this - after they have devoted so much of their recent propaganda efforts to trumpeting how passionately China upholds the "Olympic spirit" - the rest of the world will ridicule them as liars, cheats, and hypocrites. And, unfortunately, doubts will fester as to the legitimacy of all China's other medal successes (which were probably all perfectly kosher - but mud sticks, and once you've got a national reputation for cheating [and covering it up!], no-one's going to trust or respect any of your athletes quite as much again).

Alas, it is a regrettable foible of the national character that any admission of error tends to be seen as a "loss of face", and is thus violently resisted. "Loss of face" is mostly about temporary embarrassment. What we're talking about here is loss of credibility. Once you've lost that, it takes a long, long time to win it back.

Think about this carefully, China. Do you really want to top that medals table that badly? At any cost? I do hope not.


moonrat said...

the thing is, He Kexin isn't even the one that looks the youngest.

also, re: your earlier posts: i've read on your blog before things about the chinese inventing weather, but i must confess at this point i thought you were either kidding or being alarmistly big brother or perhaps trying to create some kind of metaphor. but after grilling a chinese friend--who took weather creation as pretty par for the course--i understand you were in fact being LITERAL. my apologies for the earlier misunderstandings.

i think the reason i had nightmares last night really did have something to do with all that.

Froog said...

You had nightmares about my blog?

Or about the weather in China?

Or about the Chinese being able to control the weather?

Whichever it was, Moonie, I think you need a holiday.

Joking? Me? You should know that I never joke. Well, maybe sometimes; but my joking is always but the frosting on dense and moist little cakes of truth.

The "weather control" here is mostly done through cloud-seeding - but that interacts with vigorous anti-pollution measures (like closing down all the factories for one or two hundred miles upwind), and with irrigation policy (how often do we water, how much, and where).

The Chinese are apt to exaggerate (only semi-jokingly) in their fearful imaginations the supposed omnipotence of their government, and when they talk about the exact temperature and the number and height of the clouds in the sky being prescribed by the ministry each day.... well, I fear many of them are actually being serious about that.

omg said...

Very interesting post. I've been wondering what the response was there.

On the one hand, I'm partially of the thinking that, "hey - they were judged to be better, no matter their age." On the other hand, it's the principle of the thing. The possibility that the host country isn't following the rules, and in the process is 1) using its young athletes 2) potentially ruining those athletes' reputations and 3) encouraging this behavior is most upsetting.

fg said...

@ Moonrat,

The USA has been 'seeding the rain' for years. I think before China. It is worth looking it up on Wikipedia - makes for sci-fi but apparently true reading!