Thursday, April 29, 2010

14 Will Get You Bronze

By Tony Mangia

U.S. Gets Gymnastics Medal from China

Go back ten years. The summer of 2000. President Bill Clinton was still trying play happy couple with Hillary, 'Gladiator' was bloodying up theaters, and "Smooth" by Carlos Santana was unavoidable on any radio station. No George Bush, reality television or i-pods--yet. The U.S. Olympics women's gymnastics team remembers that year in Sydney and so, apparently, did the International Olympic Committee after they stripped the Chinese women's team of their bronze medal for cheating.

The committee took away China's medal because their coaches lied about the age of one of their team members--even though the IOC still has doubts about other teammates ages then and now. The grown-up eye make-up fooled officials for the past decade but not anymore. Dong Fangxiao claimed she was 17 years old in 2000 but was outed as actually being 14. In an interview, Dong stated she was born in the 'Year of the Ox', which was 1986. Oops...what? The minimum age for gymnastic competitors is 16. I still have a hard time rationalizing this policy or condemning it. Aren't the Olympics supposed to showcase the best athletes in the world? What's worse, lying about your age because you are a superior athlete or being penalized just because you are too young?

Remember Todd Marinovich?

Supporters of the age minimum, claim it prevents still-developing children from being abused and injured. Like these same kind of kids aren't filling up gymnastic 'puppy mills' all over America, never mind Russia, Romania and China. Just check out the soccer moms at Saturday morning matches or any suburban ice rink after school. They are filled with little Michelle Kwans who can skate as good as they can walk. Supporters use China--and other countries--as examples of stealing away youngsters with athletic aptitudes from their families and forcing them into tortuous sports camps. Strip malls all over the U.S. are loaded with these types of 'recreation centers.' Whether its ballet, gymnastics, soccer, figure skating, spelling bees or boy's football-- thousands of American kids are pushed to the limit by coaches or their 'helicopter parents.' Television commercials glorify moms and dads getting their little ones to the rink for 6 a.m. ice time before school and then more practice in the afternoon. What's the difference? That these exhausted kids get to plop down in their own room every night?

The IOC took away a 14 year old girl's dream for something she was probably coerced into. It's not her fault that she was better than most of the other gymnasts. Is it her fault for being that young and talented? A gymnast's life span is short. They claim a running back's career is fleeting--by 32, you're body is broken--only with a healthy bank account. Well how about being over-the-hill by 21. How many 30 year old gymnasts are sticking it off the uneven bars or competently dangling on a balance beam? Dominique Dawes, one of the benefactors of the medal switch, and a gold medal winner herself, was asked if this decision would inspire her to return to competition. Her response, half jokingly, "Oh wait, is there a maximum age?" Oh yes, in your sport, there is.

Which brings me to the Olympic men's (boy's?) competition. There's a 14 year old British kid on the Olympic diving team. Even Freddy Adu was signed to a pro soccer contract at 15. Olympic boxing participants cannot be pros--a good idea--but hockey and basketball players can earn a living from their sports and still compete. Fourteen year-old boys play basketball and box in the AAUs and don't forget about junior hockey leagues? Where's the continuity in the Olympics? Do minimum-age proponents think the kids they are 'protecting' still don't compete outside the four year event? Cheating is using HGH or head-butting--not training, practicing and competing while at your peak. How can you call someone world champion if the real champ's only infraction was being too young?

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