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Controversy Over Chinese Gymnasts' Ages Clouds Gold-Medal Win

As the Chinese Olympic women's — "girls'" may be a more appropriate term — gymnastics team celebrates winning its first-ever gold medal on Wednesday, questions surrounding the athletes' ages continue to plague them, the International Herald Tribune reported.

In what has been referred to by many as sour grapes after the Americans finished in second place, the U.S. national team coordinator, Martha Karolyi, voiced her concern over the Chinese team’s eligibility to compete because some of the girls on the six-member team may not be over 16.

"One of the girls has a missing tooth," Karolyi told the Tribune, suggesting she had lost a baby tooth and did not yet have an adult replacement. "I have no proof, so I can't make an affirmation."

A photo of gymnast Deng Linlin, who is on record as being 16 years old, shows a wide gap in her teeth. To be eligible for the Games, the gymnasts must turn 16 this year, the Tribune reported.

China’s coach, Lu Shanzhen, defended his team after they upset the Americans, and reigning world champions.

"It's unfair that people keep saying the Chinese are too young to compete," Lu told reporters in Mandarin on his way out of the National Indoor Stadium. "If they think they can tell someone's age just by looking at them, well, if you look at the foreign athletes, they have so much more muscles than the Chinese. They are so strong. Do you then say that they are doping?"

Another gymnast, Yang Yilin, whose passport says she will turn 16 at the end of the month, said, "It's unreasonable for people to think I'm too young." She will compete in the all-around final on Friday.

According to some official records, gymnast He Kexin was listed as 13 in November, but now is listed as 16. At a news conference, a reporter asked her how she had celebrated her 15th birthday.

She paused for a long time before replying it had been "an ordinary day" with her teammates, the Tribune reported.

Nine months before the Olympics, the Chinese government's news agency, Xinhua, reported that He was 13, which would have made her ineligible to be on the team.

In its report Nov. 3, Xinhua identified He as one of "10 big new stars" who made a splash at China's Cities Games. It gave her age as 13 and reported that she beat Yang Yilin on the uneven bars at those games. In the final, "this little girl" pulled off a difficult release move on the bars known as the Li Na, named for another Chinese gymnast, Xinhua said in the report, which appeared on one of its Web sites, http://www.hb.xinhuanet.com.

The Associated Press found the Xinhua report on the site Thursday morning and saved a copy of the page. Later that afternoon, the Web site was still working but the page was no longer accessible. Sports editors at the state-run news agency would not comment for publication.

Zhang Hongliang, an official with China's gymnastics delegation at the games, said Thursday the differing ages which have appeared in Chinese media reports had not been checked in advance with the gymnastics federation.

"It's definitely a mistake," Zhang said of the Xinhua report, speaking in a telephone interview. "Never has any media outlet called me to check the athletes' ages."

Asked whether the federation had changed their ages to make them eligible, Zhang said: "We are a sports department. How would we have the ability to do that?"

"We already explained this very clearly. There's no need to discuss this thing again."

The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has said repeatedly that a passport is the "accepted proof of a gymnast's eligibility," and that He and China's other gymnasts have presented ones that show they are age eligible. The IOC also checked the girls' passports and deemed them valid.

The Americans lost any shot they had at the gold medal Wednesday with multiple mistakes on their last two events and had to settle for silver for a second straight Games.

Click here to read more on this story from the International Herald Tribune.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.