The heavy ritual that goes with the Olympics can make it seem like a religious rite, but China’s secular leaders take it more seriously than that.
So national pride took a severe blow last week when the International Olympic Committee stripped China of a medal for the very first time.
It turns out that Dong Fangxiao was just 14 years old when she helped the Chinese women’s gymnastics squad win the team bronze in the 2000 Sydney games, two years younger than the minimum age allowed. The decision has been all but inevitable since February, when the International Federation of Gymnastics compared Dong’s ‘official’ birthday with the one she gave when working as a technical official at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Oops. An embarrassing slip but not a revelation that will come as a particular surprise to some of the more jaundiced observers of the Chinese state’s sporting machine.
The country’s gymnastics authority has long denied accusations that it fields underage athletes, and as recently as March still maintained there was “not sufficient evidence” against Dong. It now says it will respect the IOC’s decision.
Ceremony is traditionally important in communist countries, and 30 years of ‘reform and opening’ hasn’t changed that in China. The Olympics carry a special significance, however, in serving as a means of uniting the country in sport, as well as a kind of subtle diplomacy with international rivals. The subtext from the last Olympics: we won the most medals so we’re once again a power to be reckoned with.
One of the casualties of that drive to succeed in Sydney was the US gymnastics team – though it has now received the bronze it deserved. And Dong herself, just a child at the time, will have to live with the damage to her own reputation.
Newspaper reports have levelled similar allegations against several Chinese athletes who participated in the 2008 Beijing games, but no others have been declared underage so far.
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