‘How old are China’s women gymnasts?!’ Youngsters spark suspicions as Olympics TV viewers can’t believe their eyes

The tiny Chinese team have sparked enormous interest as to whether they meet the minimum 16-year-old age requirement to compete at the Olympics – but there was no denying the Americans who sweep to victory in the team artistic final

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 August, 2016, 6:32pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 11:13am

We can immediately tell here in Rio when China’s women’s gymnastics team is on TV – a Post story from May where their coach insists they meet the Olympics age requirements has a massive spike in web traffic because people are Googling ‘How old are China’s women’s gymnastics team’.

It’s easy to see why from the press seats perched vertiginously near the top of the giant gymnastics arena.

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Or actually, it’s not easy to see why – from this distance it’s hard to pick out the tiny, childlike women.

China’s five-woman team of Fan Yilin, Mao Yi, Shang Chunsong, Tan Jiaxin and Wang Yan lost the silver by a fraction to Russia in the team final of the artistic gymnastics as the US team led by the phenomenon Simone Biles won gold by the largest margin since 1960.

China insists women’s gymnastics team meet age requirements after past controversies

With viewers around the world tuning in, the aforementioned article’s hits went through the roof again.

Officials insist they meet the IOC’s requirements that gymnasts must turn 16 in the year of the Games; some have suspicions because China gymnastics chiefs have not seemed passionate adherents to those rules in the past.

Fan, Mao and Wang are 16, Tan 19 and captain Shang ready to pensioned off at 20. But on television and in person the five appear to have a combined age of 45 and a combined height of 5 metres.

They make for a slightly uncanny encounter below the stadium afterwards, elder stateswomen Tan and Shang answering questions like the confident young women they are while looking like they should be in primary school.

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Tan fumbled nervously with her medal as the mainland media crowded around and over her; she was probably grateful for the fence in between.

Shang coolly dismissed an American reporter’s question about an abstruse scoring issue on the balance beam with the experience of an old veteran – then reached for the reporter’s accreditation lanyard to see what commemorative badges she had collected and handed her one of her own, a kind gesture that could only be described – sorry – as childlike.

“Chinese athletes are usually small and petite,” said Shang when I asked what they thought of Westerners’ suspicions. “Me and Tai were born in 96, the rest in 99 – maybe we look it, but we’re not that young.”

Fan added: “The first one of the US team is even younger than us.”

Which is true – Lauren Hernandez was born in 2000. But like teammates Biles, Aly Raisman, Madison Kocian and Gabby Douglas, she looks like a woman – a powerful, incredibly athletic woman – and not a child.

The contrast between Hernandez’ and Biles’ infectious personalities and the rigidly disciplined Chinese quintet was also stark. Given the Americans’ joy at winning gold and the Chinese disappointment at missing out on silver, that couldn’t necessarily be blamed on stereotypical notions of the brutal training Chinese gymnasts have traditionally been subjected to since early childhood, but you wondered.

“I think everyone did a great job, great execution, but I’m not very happy with what I did on the uneven bars,” said Shang in a painful bit of self-criticism. She fell off during rotation two. “I made a mistake and my poor performance affected the score.”

Mao blundered on the floor in rotation four, bouncing off the mat after a dodgy landing. Those two mistakes were enough to ensure the Russians edged out China, 176.188 to 176.003. You needed binoculars to see the Americans, somewhere on the horizon with 184.897.

“I think that today all of my teammates have a done great job,” said a tearful Mao, “but I think that the problem is myself.

“I kept blaming myself while waiting for the scores after that horrible floor exercise. But it was already over.

“It is partially mental but also technical. I should have done a better job.”

Biles was the centre of attention during and after the event of course, the 19-year-old phenomenon raising uproar in the stadium with her sensational closing floor display to a samba backing track that was unashamedly calculated to win over the locals.

“Our choreographer picked it out, me and my coach liked it, we though it was a very good fit especially since the Olympics are here in Rio,” said Biles.

“I think the whole crowd was insane with how much cheering they were for everyone. It’s exciting, always makes us motivated to do our best and we feed off that energy.”

She seems nailed-on to win the individual gold on Thursday. As she laughed and joked with teammates, the words ‘nerves’ and ‘pressure’ seemed completely foreign concepts.

“I personally don’t think I felt any pressure or expectations because I have this wonderful team behind me, every time we go up we just cheer for each other and that helps us not have any expectations form anyone,” Biles added.

The girls were asked what they could do to catch up to the all-powerful American five who were simply flawless.

“The difficulty [of the Americans’ manoeuvres] is much higher, they’re much more stable,” said Fan. “Maybe they’ve done more training and are more experienced – our team is very young.”

Yes, we noticed that.