Acting on evidence that Dong Fangxiao was only 14 at the 2000 Sydney Games, the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday ordered China to return the women's team bronze. It will be given to the United States instead.
Gymnasts must turn 16 during the Olympic year to be eligible.
"Justice prevailed," said Dominique Dawes, who will now have a medal from each of her three Olympics and four overall. "My teammates are very well-deserving of the bronze medal, and I'm sure each and every one of us will be thrilled. We will cherish it."
Age falsification has been a problem in gymnastics since the 1980s, when the minimum age was raised from 14 to 15 to help protect young athletes, whose bodies are still developing, from serious injuries. The International Gymnastics Federation raised the minimum age to its current 16 in 1997.
But the issue drew worldwide attention in 2008, when media reports and Internet records suggested some of the girls on China's team that won the gold medal at the Beijing Games could have been as young as 14. With the controversy threatening to overshadow the final days of the Olympics, the IOC ordered the FIG to investigate.
The FIG cleared the Beijing gymnasts and closed that case in October 2008 after Chinese officials provided original passports, ID cards and family registers that showed all of the gymnasts were old enough to compete. But the FIG said it wasn't satisfied with "the explanations and evidence provided to date" for Dong and a second Sydney gymnast, Yang Yun.
"That was discussed a lot in 2000," said Kelli Hill, the U.S. coach in 2000. "We'd heard all of those stories back then, but we'd never had it confirmed or anything. It was just the rumor mill."
Dong's accreditation information for the Beijing Olympics, where she worked as a national technical official, listed her birthday as Jan. 23, 1986. That would have made her 14 in Sydney — too young to compete. Her birth date in the FIG database is listed as Jan. 20, 1983.
Dong's blog also said she was born in the Year of the Ox in the Chinese zodiac, which dates from Feb. 20, 1985, to Feb. 8, 1986.
The FIG nullified Dong's Sydney results in February. The federation didn't find sufficient evidence to prove Yang, who also won a bronze medal on uneven bars in 2000, was underage. She received a warning from the FIG.
Because Dong's scores contributed to China winning the team bronze, the FIG recommended the IOC take the medal back.
As expected, the IOC executive board upheld the request and formally stripped the medal on the first day of a two-day meeting in Dubai. The IOC said Dong was also stripped of her sixth-place result in the individual floor exercises and seventh place in the vault.
"Respecting the minimum age of our gymnasts remains a priority and I am committed to safeguarding the health of our athletes," FIG president Bruno Grandi said in a statement Wednesday.
The IOC also told the Chinese to "ensure, by all means, that the athletes and officials of its delegation comply with all rules and regulations (of the international federation) particularly with regard to age limits."
To prevent age manipulation, the FIG last year began requiring all junior and senior gymnasts who represent their countries at most international meets to have a license. The licenses include gymnasts' name, sex, country and date of birth, and are their proof of age for their entire career.
"We are extremely grateful that the IOC and the FIG have taken such a thorough look at the issues that were raised in Beijing," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "It serves the best interests of sports to make sure there's always a fair field of play."
The IOC ordered China's national Olympic committee to return the team medals "as soon as possible" so they can be reallocated to the U.S. team.
"I will say that I never imagined in all my years of gymnastics that, a decade after one of my Olympic Games, I'd actually get a medal possibly shipped to me in the mail," Dawes said.
The bronze medal should ease some of the disappointing memories from Sydney for the U.S. women.
Not only did the team — Dawes, Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzscher, Kristin Maloney, Elise Ray and Tasha Schwikert — leave empty-handed four years after winning gold in Atlanta, but Dantzscher's father was seriously injured in a car crash in Sydney. There also were tensions over radical changes in how the U.S. program was structured.
"Sydney was a beautiful Olympics, they did a great job. But it was hard when people would ask, 'What medal did you guys get?'" Schwikert said. "It's going to be nice to say, 'We did get a medal. We got the bronze in Sydney.'"