Age just a number for Chinese athletes

Ren Cancan (left).

SHANGHAI – Age fabrication is widespread in Chinese sports, according to boxing world champion Ren Cancan, a hot contender for flyweight gold in the inaugural women’s tournament at the London Olympics.

Ren would know. She celebrates her birthday on a different date to the one she has long used to register at international tournaments.

Her actual birthdate, she said, is April 26, 1986, making her 26 years old. Officially, however, she is 24 and was born on January 26, 1988.The younger age is on her household registration papers and recorded by the International Boxing Association (AIBA), the global governing body of amateur boxing, which had her marked as a 24-year-old for the world championships in Qinhuangdao in May.

“This is very common in China, especially in competition from the municipal level to the provincial level,” Ren said.

“There are less people doing so once they reach the national level.”

In practice, the age discrepancy is unlikely to affect Ren’s participation at the July 28 – Aug. 12 tournament in London.

Whether 24 or 26, Ren would still fall within Olympic boxers’ permitted age range of 17 to 34. But Ren’s frank admission shines a light into the cut-throat nature of domestic competition in China and the corner-cutting by coaches and sports officials to put their athletes in the frame for titles and medals.

China has been embarrassed by several high-profile scandals involving age discrepancies in recent years. In 2010, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stripped China of the women’s team gymnastics bronze at the 2000 Sydney Olympics after the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) concluded one of their members, Dong Fangxiao, was younger than the required age of 16 at the Games.

The Chinese Gymnastics Association was unapologetic and slammed the decision.

The IOC also ordered a probe into the age of China’s He Kexin, the women’s team and asymmetric bars gold medallist at the Beijing Games, and several of her team mates. They were cleared two months after the Games.

While cases rarely come to light at the Olympics, age fabrication has been a more pervasive problem in China’s domestic sports, especially in junior competitions beneath the provincial level.

Medals and titles go hand in hand with funding for local schools and coaches in China’s Soviet-style sports system, and regional champions are touted proudly by local officials.

In 2009, the sports ministry in southern Guangdong province ordered tests on 15,000 youth athletes and found a fifth had misrepresented their age in order to compete against younger rivals.

Ren, the daughter of poor corn farmers in Shandong province, expects little backlash from having a false age next to her name.

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