The International Olympics Committee (IOC) has found no proof that Chinese Gymnast He Kexin was underage. The issue was raised by the US gymnastic team based on their visual inspection; “they don’t look like 16, but a lot younger”. How much credit should be given to the subjective impression of the American competitors who have lost to Kexin and her teammates? Moreover, what can you do with your subjective impressions?
First off, here is my subjective impression on Kexin’s looks and age.
Chinese sixteen year olds have different developmental trajectory, different life experiences and different looks (as far as maturity is concerned) from their American and European peers; they mature more slowly. The progressively earlier onset of menarche (and its social ramifications) in North America and Europe over the last 200 years has been documented extensively in the medical literature. As of today, the age of menarche onset for girls in Western Europe is about 12.8 years. In a sample with over 1000 American subjects in 1994, researchers found the mean menarche onset age was 11.5 for White girls and 11.4 for Black girls. Average menarche onset age for Chinese girls is at least two years later, and as far as 4 years later in rural areas (at 16, see the editorial in Indian Pediatrics cited above). (This is the best information I can gather from reputable sources. I hope pediatricians familiar with the literature on comparative studies on maturation can join the discussion.) Besides, there is a well-documented negative correlation between intense physical activities (to which Kexin et al have been subjected at an early age) and age of menarche onset. Looking back to my last year of middle school (about 16 year olds), half of the girls in my class looked just as immature as He Kexin. To my eye, Kexin looks like sixteen years old.
Subjective impressions are highly unreliable, especially in cross-cultural situations. In my limited viewing of the games (I a busy man), I have found some of the European and American female athletes look shockingly counter-female; they look like guys, to put it bluntly, not only in the aggressive mannerism, but also in their bone structure, body shape and facial features. This subjective impression of masculinity in European and American female athletes was especially strong when they were defeating helpless Japanese and Chinese women in various ball games (a mirror image to the American/European impression of Kexin’s immaturity). We know that masculine physiques could be a side effect of a scientifically designed androgen supplement program. We know that androgen supplement programs have advanced to the degree that it can defy the best of testing regiments available to sports authorities. This is why Barry Bonds is still playing major league baseball in the US. We also know that American and European Olympians have a long and continuing tradition of enhancing their performance with hormone supplements. Marion Jones got her Olympic gold medals on drugs. British 400m medalist Christine Ohuruogu just got off a three year ban from competition for missing mandatory doping tests before competing in the Olympics. Was there a reason why she repeatedly skipped drug tests at the expense of a penalty worth of three years of her career? What should the world (Chinese in particular) do with the subjective impression that some American and European women athletes look puzzlingly masculine for women and have a suspicious record of submitting themselves to testing? Is the IOC clearance sufficient for us to accept the legitimacy of their performance? Should we demand more testing, more intrusive and extended investigation than what the IOC has conducted so far based on our subjective impression? The universal answer seems to be a “no”, for two reasons. First, notions of femininity and maturity are cultural constructs, with standards specific to each society (Chinese versus American and European). Subjective impressions based on visual inspection are often biased by the cultural-specific norms, standards and expectancies and may mismatch biological reality. Second, the IOC drug testing and age verification protocol is the accepted procedure for the Olympic Games, although we know IOC has failed to catch Marion Jones and other doping athletes on the tracks, and that Christine Ohuruogu is probably getting away with a dark secret right now. Accepting the protocol is respect for procedural justice. Is it too much to ask the same procedural justice for Kexin and her teammates? The IOC followed its protocol; they looked at her passport (which is the same treatment for all the other gymnasts). The thing is over; procedural justice is served.
Today the Chinese authorities provided more information at the IOC’s behest, including birth certificates, residence registration cards and ID cards. That is a very bad move; it is a show of weakness. From my extensive experience of living and working in the West, once you show your weakness, the average westerner will find it extremely hard to restrain himself, and the whole thing will escalate. Remember Saddam allowed hundreds of “UN inspectors” into his country but the United States and Britain invaded Iraq? Remember Kim Jung Il kicked out the last one UN inspector and the United States amicably sat down with him to negotiate? I hope the Chinese Olympic authorities will get themselves a backbone in dealing with their Western colleagues.