Bela Karolyi incensed about underage rules
By BARRY WILNER, AP Sports Writer
Aug 10, 6:41 am EDT
Buzz Up Print
BEIJING (AP)—Bela Karolyi seethed as he watched the Chinese women compete Sunday.
Not because of how good they were in qualifications, finishing 1.475 points ahead of the American team that often trains at his Texas ranch. What bothered the most famous man in gymnastics was “China’s arrogance” for using girls he wasn’t even sure were teenagers yet.
“They are using half-people,” Karolyi said. “One of the biggest frustrations is, what arrogance. These people think we are stupid.
“We are in the business of gymnastics and we know what a kid of 14 or 15 or 16 looks like. You don’t have to be a gymnastics coach to know what they look like at 16.”
Karolyi, working the games for NBC, believes the international federation’s rules that gymnasts must turn at least 16 during the Olympic year are flawed. Karolyi’s complaints are nothing new. But when they come moments after the Chinese have competed at the Olympics, well, they come across more loudly than ever.
“What kind of slap in the face is this?” he asked. “They are 12, 14 years old, max. And they line them up for the world … and having the government back them.
“Since they forced an age limit, it has gotten worse and worse. The FIG is running away from the age problem. They set an age limit and now they can’t control it.”
International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) officials have accepted the passports of the Chinese women, which indicate all are old enough to compete. Karolyi is originally from Romania, and he says falsifying documents is a common practice in countries such as Romania, Russia and other former Soviet bloc nations.
The solution, he said, is to not have any age limit. He believes if a gymnast is good enough to earn a spot at the Olympics or world championships, that athlete deserves to go. He said some juniors today are just as proficient as the age-eligble competitors. Nastia Liukin, for example, would certainly have made the squad for the Athens Games four years ago had she not been 14.
Karolyi’s wife, Martha, the national coordinator for the U.S. women’s team, agrees that if there are any questions about age, just eliminate the restrictions being broken.
“If it’s true,” she said of any nation using underage gymnasts, “the only situation is to lift up the age limit. It would be an even playing field for everyone.”
Bela Karolyi praised the Chinese for their skills on the various apparatus, and for their competitiveness. His issue is not with the athletes, of course, but with those who would use them as pawns in the chase for medals.
Very young pawns.
“They do good gymnastics and are a good service for the sport,” he said of the Chinese. “They have the ultimate effective training program. That’s why I am more upset that they are cheating. They don’t need cheating. They would be just as good a lineup of eligible athletes.”