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Controversy lingers, but dispute over age seems all but over

BEIJING — The parents of the Chinese gymnasts are indignant, the International Olympic Committee sounds satisfied and the Beijing Games are almost over. Yet questions persisted Friday about the ages of China’s gold-medal women’s gymnastics team.

Are they 14? Are they 16?

Hoping to put a definitive end to a simmering controversy, China was asked to provide additional documents that prove five of the six team members were old enough to compete at these games. The request, by the International Gymnastics Federation, was made at the urging of the IOC, despite China’s insistence that its athletes were not underage and the fact that there is no irrefutable proof to the contrary.

Still, the questions haven’t abated, and so the Chinese federation was asked one more time to prove the girls were eligible.

“It’s not a question of a final decision,” IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said. “We simply want the federation to work with the national federation ... to just put to bed once and for all the questions.”

The FIG asked China for documents on He Kexin, Yang Yilin, Jiang Yuyuan, Deng Linlin and Li Shanshan, and said it will forward all information to the IOC. The organization didn’t set a deadline, but with the games ending Sunday, the IOC wants to dispel any lingering doubts as quickly as possible.

Questions about the Chinese women have been swirling for months, with media reports and online records suggesting that He, Yang and Jiang might be as young as 14. Gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible.

Four of China’s six medals could be affected if evidence of cheating is found. In addition to the team gold, He won the gold medal on uneven bars and Yang won bronzes on bars and the all-around.

“It is in the interests of all concerned, not least the athletes themselves, to resolve this issue once and for all,” the FIG said in a statement.

That’s all anyone wants, said Jim Scherr, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which sent a letter to the IOC and FIG on Friday asking that they take one last look.

“We certainly believe that it’s important for the IOC and the international federation to review the issue and hopefully lay it to rest because the questions surrounding the age of some of the athletes have been out there for quite a while and it’s unfair to them and unfair to the other athletes to continue to linger,” Scherr said.

No one would be happier to finally have closure on the controversy than the gymnasts’ parents.

China coach Lu Shanzhen said the parents are “indignant” over persistent questions about their daughters’ ages.

“It’s not just me. The parents of our athletes are all very indignant,” Lu said. “They have faced groundless suspicion. Why aren’t they believed? Why are their children suspected? Their parents are very angry.”

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lu said Asian gymnasts are naturally smaller than their American and European rivals.

“At this competition, the Japanese gymnasts were just as small as the Chinese,” he said. “Chinese competitors have for years all been small. It is not just this time. It is a question of race. European and American athletes are all powerful, very robust. But Chinese athletes cannot be like that. They are by nature that small.”

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