In defense of He Kexin, sort of

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There is a part of me that feels that my Olympics would have been diminished had He Kexin not been here.

This is not to condone cheating. If she and several of her teammates are under age 16, as several Western media reports suggest, she should not have competed. Further reports that the international gymnastics federation (FIG) will investigate are welcome.

That said, He’s uneven bar routine was the single most breathtaking thing I saw during the Olympic gymnastics program.

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I say this not to begin a debate about who performed the best routine in nine days of gymnastics, but to point out that in the Olympics – a competition devoted to continually redefining the frontiers of human performance – He is a Louis and Clark of the uneven bars.

It is clear that she could do what she did only because she is so small. For all her talent, 18-year-old American Nastia Liukin could not have done some of the releases and hand holds that He did. At 5-foot-3, 99 lbs., she is simply too big.

So we return to one of gymnastics’ eternal questions: How young is too young to be a professional athlete, which these girls basically are?

The arguments on both sides can be compelling.

The most obvious argument against the FIG’s prohibition on Olympic competition for anyone under 16 is that, had the law been in force in 1976, we never would have known Nadia Comenici. In a sport built on flexibility and the ability to defy gravity, an age limit can prevent gymnasts from competing at the height of their abilities.

The counterargument that the sort of intense training needed to compete internationally is unhealthy for someone so young. A body that is still growing, critics say, cannot cope with such stress, leading to physical problems.

The momentum seems to favoring the counterargument at the moment. The head of FIG has talked of expanding the 16-year-old age limit to all international competitions – not just the Olympics. According to such a law, American Shawn Johnson would not have been the world all-around champion last year. She was 15.

Putting aside the question of whether this gives authoritarian countries a competitive advantage – since they can more easily alter birth data – there seems to be some sense in this. Sporting federations exist not only to promote the sport, but to protect the athletes – from themselves or those who would use them.

Yet I am glad I had the chance to see He Kexin all the same, no matter what her age.

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