Back in 2008, when the world was looking at their TV screens and seeing in Beijing a group of barely pubescent Chinese gymnasts all bearing passports that declared them to be 16, there had in fact been an alarm raised among figure skating fans, about one Bingwa Geng, who at Junior Worlds was claimed to be 14 years old, but looked a lot closer to 12. I think there were even some records that disputed her ISU-given age. But she didn’t quite live up to her hype, so the matter was forgotten.
Except now it turns out this age-fudging business is slightly more extensive than we thought.
In fact, China has even been on the record as flouting the rules; last year, they sent three pairs to Junior Worlds when in fact they had only qualified two; their reputation, it seems, made everyone on site just assume the third pair was supposed to be there. Later when the problem was pointed out, the ISU removed the third pair from the results without comment. But this was too little, too late; another pair had been deprived of a berth in the free skate by this cheating. In the new environment of qualification rounds, this robbery gains the potential to be worse, by depriving a pair a chance to be in the competition at all. Oddly enough, there are only two Chinese pairs on the roster for Junior Worlds this year, when the placements of the other two did qualify three, but still.
For the past decade, we now discover, the skaters of Japan, the United States, and most recently Russia are being punished for their honesty. A fudged passport and Mao might have been the 2006 Olympic champion. Mirai Nagasu and Rachael Flatt might have gone to Worlds in 2008, and the way that competition went, they probably would have preserved the US’ third spot for Ladies; Caroline Zhang would have gotten a trip to Worlds. She might have even made the top eight; Ashley Wagner might have gone to the Olympics, and who knows she wouldn’t have preserved the third spot again(all hypothetical, of course, but one can see the potential for how much toll the age rule has taken on US Ladies). But no, the right thing was done, and as a reward China spits in their faces. Now Adelina Sotnikova suffers the indignity of being one day too young to enter the ISU championship scene until the pre-Olympic year. If Russia suddenly conveniently discovered they’d made a mistake on her birth certificate, well, I can’t say I’d blame them!
Add the dilemma countless US pairs, and probably pairs from other countries too, have suffered due to age rules, with the ISU continually threatening to make it worse by changing the age rules to meet with arbitrary standards that don’t meet with reality. And all the while, we see the Chinese pairs machine has decided the rules don’t have to apply to them. None of the Chinese ladies have been enough of a factor in any competition for anyone to be deprived of serious results, but now we discover two pairs on this year’s Grand Prix circuit have been robbed of medals. Caitlin Yankowskas & John Coughlin were robbed of silver. Worst of all, Narumi Takahashi & Mervin Tran were robbed of a chance to compete in the Senior Grand Prix Finale.
The ISU isn’t the kind of organization that punishes a federation that gives them as much money as China does. But meanwhile, this hurts much more than corrupt judging, because you can’t say the athletes themselves are innocent(after my brief foray into cycling fandom, I’ve come to realize what a reassurance that is). Some of the girls you can excuse, both due to their young age and the fact that their ability to make a living is probably completely dependent on the athletic machine. But their partners are all adults, and at some point must be held responsible.
Wenjing Sui & Cong Han could very easily win Olympic gold in Sochi. According to this, she will still be old enough to compete there, but barely. And meanwhile, they will have gained their reputation with the judges in competitions they will have gotten into by fraud. Fans rant all the time about another judging scandal, but this would be a far less subjective and therefore a much more deadly one. Can this sport take that?