Keeping age-cheats off our sports teams

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2009, 12:00am

News that one in five of 15,000 Guangdong athletes were found to have lied about their age has attracted worldwide media coverage. This follows claims that Chinese sports authorities had added years to the ages of two gymnasts who won gold medals at last year's Olympics, to make them eligible to compete.

In that case, an investigation ordered by the International Olympic Committee was satisfied with documentary evidence provided by China. It is good that mainland sports authorities are taking steps to clean things up ahead of the Asian Games in Guangzhou next year. It has long been believed that dishonesty over athletes' ages is a prevalent problem in mainland sports. The disclosure by Guangdong sports officials of the results of X-ray bone tests on young athletes has helped bring the problem into the open. But the findings are alarming. The authorities must act to stamp out this kind of cheating to ensure China is not faced with the same kind of allegations encountered in the Olympics. It will also help ensure fair play between mainland athletes competing against each other.

That said, cheating is a problem faced by sport around the world. In the era of professionalism and high rewards, the focus is understandably on catching those who use illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. But the faking and fudging of age is as old as modern competitive sport. It can start out innocently enough as a means of making up the numbers in a junior sports team when there are not enough players of the right age. But it can easily become a form of deliberate cheating. In one example uncovered recently, an American major league baseball franchise paid US$1.4 million to sign a future prospect who said he was 16, only to discover he was four years older. Money can corrupt sports officials, too, when government funding is tied to success, as is the case in Guangdong.

Drug cheats have tarnished the wholesome image of sport. Now every effort must be made to uphold the ideal of fair competition. Guangdong's action to expose the age cheats sends the right message.