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Olympics rewind: The story of Dong Fangxiao - the 14 year old who broke the rules and won an Olympic medal

Looking back at Dong Fangxiao, who won a bronze in gymnastics in the Sydney Olympics, taken away later for having competed underage.

Don Fangxiao won a bronze at Sydney, which she was later stripped of

Going into the Rio Olympics 2016, China are one of the major guns. But, it was at the decade beginning from 2000 marked China’s entry as a sporting superpower on the global stage. Post the Sydney Olympics, China gradually started moving from strength to strength, putting up stiff competition in sports other than their traditional strangleholds of table tennis and badminton. China particularly started impressing in athletics and gymnastics during this period.

30-year-old Dong Fangxiao, now retired, had been amongst the medal winners in gymnastics, for China, at the Sydney Olympics. Back then she was a fourteen-year-old, who clinched third place in the team event in gymnastics. However, reports of the Chinese federation having falsified her age surfaced in 2010, when it was alleged that she had competed at fourteen years of age when the minimum age for competing in gymnastics events at the Olympics is sixteen. After a lengthy period of investigations, the FIG, the international governing body for gymnastics, ruled she had been underage and recommended the Chinese team to be stripped of their bronze medals.

The news created a furore back home in China, where fans vented their anger towards the government. China had often been accused of fielding underage athletes before this fiasco unravelled, but it was the first time such allegations had ultimately been proven true and action had been taken. Dong had been registered in FIG records as having been born in 1983. However, when she was working as a national technical officer during the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, Dong had her year of birth as 1986, which made her fourteen when she was competing at Sydney. On her blog, her year of birth is mentioned as the year of the ox, which ran from 1985 to 1986.

Dong Fangxiao used ‘Zorba the Greek’ as her tune to perform to during her period of success.  Apart from a career high bronze at the Sydney Olympics, Dong has won a host of international awards, including bronze in the world cup at Glasgow in 2000 in the floor exercise category, golds in the 2001 East Asian Games at Osaka in the team, all-around, vault, balance beam and floor exercise category. In the 2001 national games, she won gold in the floor exercise category and bronze in the all-around category.

Dong was sentenced to a lot of media scrutiny post the age falsification fiasco. A matter of national shame, Dong had to bear the brunt of the allegations herself. Fortunately for her, the district of Waikato in New Zealand offered her a much-needed escape route. The Huntly Gym Club wanted to hire the ex-Olympian as a coach and trainer for local talent. Dong’s international career had come to an abrupt and sad end during the national games in 2001 when she suffered a crippling, career-ending thigh injury. The state-run Chinese media compounded matters for her by proclaiming Dong had been eligible to compete in Sydney in 2000 and she had taken off three years from her age post her retirement in 2001, alleging this to be a conspiracy on the part of Dong and her family.

China had earned the ire of the world post-Beijing 2008, when shocking images revealed how they literally torture children from very young ages, in order to make good gymnasts out of them. Nanning gymnasium, one of the many infamous training camps where parents send their children in the hope of earning a better living, post-Olympic glory, brought in front of the world the horrors the children are subjected to. Amongst different forms of training, some of the most spine-chilling include trainers standing on the legs of children to make them suppler and thinner.

Boys and girls, about five or six years of age are made to undergo rigorous training sessions on bars, beams and rings, and sometimes made to hang for an hour at a stretch to develop requisite upper body strength. Another ghastly sight, common in Nanning involves a trainer sitting on the limbs of a trainee with her legs stretched 180 degrees across two planks of wood. In case any of the athletes forget the reason behind them undergoing such hard labour, a bold inscription of GOLD on the walls of the gymnasium serve as a reminder.

Ye Shiwen, who knocked almost a second off the world record for the 400-metre individual medley swimming event in London 2012, was a product of one of these schools, the Chen Jinglun Sports School.

Dong Fangxiao too was a product of this unforgiving and ruthless system of training. She stunned the world with her grace and poise in 2000, only to be shorn of the bronze she earned, ten years later, for no fault of her own. The world will remember Dong as the little girl who conquered the world and then saw her own crumble, thanks to an unforgiving system.

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