A determined computer expert has delved into cached pages on the Internet to unearth Chinese official documents showing a gymnast who took gold, edging Britain’s Beth Tweddle into fourth place, may indeed be underage.
Controversy over whether He Kexin, gold medallist in the uneven bars, is under the minimum age of 16 has surrounded her participation in the Beijing Olympics. The latest challenge over the age of the tiny Olympian comes from the discovery through a cyberspace maze of Chinese official documents listing her date of birth.
She certainly does not look as if she has reached the minimum competing age of 16. However China says her passport, issued in February, gives her birthday on January 1, 1992, and the International Olympic Committee has said proof from her passport is good enough.
If incontrovertible evidence that Ms He is underage were to come to light, Britain’s Beth Tweddle, from Cheshire, could edge up from fourth place to bronze medal position in the uneven bars. With the end of the Games just three days away, that now seems unlikely.
The latest unofficial investigation was carried out by 'Stryde', a computer security expert for the New York-based Intrepidus Group, whose site Stryde Hax revealed a detailed forensic search for Ms He’s age.
The blogger first simply tried Google, only to find that an official listing by the Chinese sports administration that had given her age could no longer be accessed. Next he tried the Google cache, only to find that Ms He’s name had been removed.
So then he tried the cache of Chinese search engine Baidu. There, he found that Baidu lists two spreadsheets in Ms He's name, both giving her date of birth as January 1, 1994 – making her 14 years and 220 days old and too young to compete at these Olympics.
The lists were compiled by the General Administration of Sport of China.
Even before anyone arrived in Beijing, American media investigations had accused China of fielding three athletes below the 16-year-old minimum age threshold. Bela Karolyi, the former US head coach, then reheated the issue by claiming that China “are using half-people” and that their flouting of the regulations was so obvious that “these people think we are stupid”.
Nastia Liukin of the US finished second behind He Kexin in the uneven bars final and would be elevated to the gold medal position should the Chinese gymnast be disqualified.
Ms He insists that she is of age. Asked by journalists about the debate, she said: “My real age is 16. I don’t care what other people say. I want other people to know that 16 is my real age.” Asked how she spent her 15th birthday, she paused and then said: “I was with my team. It was an ordinary day.”
Just nine months before the Olympics, the Chinese government’s Xinhua news agency gave Ms He’s name as 13. Officials have since dismissed that report saying Xinhua had never been given her age and had made a mistake.
Stryde, who was later named by the technology news site Information Week as Mike Walker, concludes: “Much of the coverage regarding Kexin’s age has only mentioned ‘allegations’ of fraud, and the IOC has ignored thematter completely. I believe that these primary documents, issued by the Chinese state … rise to a level of evidence higher than ‘allegation’.”
It could certainly make a difference to Britain's Tweddle, who at 23 and relatively old for a gymnast may not be able to compete in London 2012.