Rift Over Underage Gymnasts

By Neil Amdur

New York Times, December 7, 1981    The phenomenal success of young female gymnasts, some of whom may have been illegally entered in last month's world championships, has created a controversy and division within the fast-growing sport.

Three members of the Rumanian women's team competed in the world meet in Moscow even though they failed to meet the 15-and-over age requirement, according to Bela Karolyi, who was Rumania's national coach until his defection to the United States earlier this year.  The athletes were Lavinia Agache, a seventh-place finisher in the all-around competition who, Karolyi said, is 13 years old; Christina Grigoras, also 13; and Mihaela Stanulet, 14.

Maria Simionescu, the new coach of the women's team, over the weekend denied Karolyi's allegations.

Two United States bronze medalists in Moscow, Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera, charged earlier this week that Olga Bicherova of the Soviet Union, who won the all-around title, also was underage.

"Bicherova's good, but she's not 15," 15-year-old Miss Talavera said after her arrival here for a two-day international club team championship that concluded yesterday at Madison Square Garden.  "You only have to look at her."  Two years ago, Miss Talavera, then 13, was denied entry to the world championships in Fort Worth because of her age.

"Bicherova's not a day over 13," said Cheryl Weatherstone of Reading, Pa., a 16-year-old who competed for Britain and practiced during the same training periods as Soviet gymnasts.  "She's so tiny, and just looking at her face, you can see she's not 15."

Soviet Official Denies Charges

Anatoly A. Gunlenkov, deputy chief of the gymnastics division of the Soviet sports committee, described the allegations against Miss Bicherova as "trepotnya," or rubbish.  Gunlenkov said Miss Bicherova was born on Oct. 26, 1966 and noted that International Gymnastics Federation rules allow participation by any athlete who turns 15 in the year of competition.

The federation instituted the 15-and-over age limit several years ago to counter criticism that the acrobatic routines of young gymnasts were overshadowing the artistic refinement associated with older competitors.

Karolyi, who coached Nadia Comaneci and is considered to be one of the foremost teachers, said parental and administrative pressure contributed to under-15 gymnasts being rushed into international competition.  Falsifying passports to change birth dates "happens many times," he said.

"In 1979, before Fort Worth, we had a very talented young gymnast in Rumania named Anca Kiss," Karolyi said, during a phone interview from Norman, Okla., where he is now affiliated with several gymnastics programs.  "Maybe with the same talent or potential as Nadia.  But I could not use her because of age.  She was 13 1/2, not even 14.  The international rules, I would not break.  Her parents got very, very mad.  After I returned to Rumania, they moved her to another school, and I lost her.  It was not easy to lose someone like that."

Miss McNamara, who is 16, tied with Miss Agache in the all-around, one of the best showings ever by an American woman in the world championships.  She also was fourth in the balance beam and seventh in floor exercises, in addition to her bronze medal in the uneven parallel bars.  "When Agache was in the American Cup last March, she told me she was 13," Miss McNamara said, referring to another international event, held at Madison Square Garden.  "Now she's 15."

Miss Simionescu said in an interview in Bucharest, Rumania, that, "All of the members of the team that went to Moscow traveled under a collective passport that listed their ages, which was listed in the foreign ministry in Bucharest, on the basis of their birth certificates."

"This document was presented to and accepted by a verification committee of the international federation in Moscow a few days before the beginning of the championship."  Miss Simionescu is a vice president of the technical committee of the international federation.

Passport Checks Made

Don Peters, the United States coach at the world meet, said passport checks were made by the gymnastics federation in Moscow.  Peters acknowledged that Miss Bicherova was among a group of girls "who did not appear to be 15," but said he had no evidence to dispute her age and cautioned against a hasty indictment.

Tom McCarthy, the coach of the Berks Gymnastics Academy in Reading, Pa., attended the competition in Moscow and, like other American athletes and coaches, saw Miss Bicherova for the first time.

"Undoubtedly, the kid is 13," McCarthy said, after his return.  "There is no way this kid is 15 years old."

Miss Talavera said: "One translator told us you could look on her passport and see that it had been changed."

Hotbed of Controversy

Women's gymnastics has been troubled by politics brought on by disputes over judging inconsistencies and charges of national bias.  Chinese coaches pulled two of their women competitors from a medal ceremony after the uneven bars in Moscow to protest the scoring.  Karolyi was involved in several heated arguments with judges and officials during the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  American coaches returned from one international competition several years ago claiming that the Soviet athletes were using drugs to impede the growth of their young gymnasts, thus keeping them smaller and more limber for routines.

"It's not material to me that Bicherova was younger," McCarthy said, trying to dispel notions that the age issue involved an anti-Soviet attitude.  "She deserved to win, and her scores weren't inflated.  The thing that upsets me is that it's a negative thing for the sport.  What we're trying to do with the sport is not go with tricks but refinement.  To allow a kid to be 13, 14 or underage, that's negative.  It's taking away from the older girls who are seasoned, have worked hard and weren't allowed to compete."

Gymnastics is one of the few international sports with an age restriction.  While criticizing leaders of the sport for condoning and ignoring such abuses, Karolyi said the issue posed "very hard questions." 

"It is hard to give a simple answer.  You have two different groups.  Gymnastics is so difficult, and everybody begins so early and they get a pretty good level at 13 or 14, so maybe it is good to put in an age limit."

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