DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Ten years after its gymnastics team won an Olympic bronze medal in Sydney, China was ordered to give it back for using an underage girl, allowing the United States to claim it instead.
Acting on evidence that Dong Fangxiao was only 14 at the 2000 Games, the International Olympic Committee on Wednesday stripped the country of the women's team bronze. 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 still-developing athletes 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 host China's gold-medal-winning Olympic team could have been as young as 14.
With the controversy threatening to overshadow the final days of those games, the IOC ordered the FIG to investigate. Its probe cleared the Beijing gymnasts and closed the 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 at the time. "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 was underage; instead, it gave her a warning. Because Dong's scores contributed to China winning the team bronze, the FIG recommended the IOC take back the medal.
"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 - Dawes, Amy Chow, Jamie Dantzscher, Kristin Maloney, Elise Ray and Tasha Schwikert. Not only did the team 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."'
The IOC executive board acted at a two-day meeting in Dubai and also stripped Dong of her sixth-place finish 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. Calls to the Chinese Gymnastics Association and the media officers for the Chinese gymnastics team went unanswered late Wednesday.
Dong now lives in New Zealand with her husband.
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" regarding 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.