After Almonte: Sports and the Age Fraud Menace

The Danny Almonte story was one of the splashier examples of age fabrication, with its media-ready blend of immigration, youth exploitation, a perfect baseball game, and, oh yeah, New York City. But for as long as organized sports have set constraints on participation based on age, there have been people — sometimes the athletes themselves, often their handlers — trying to smudge the ink.

I’ve worked with otherwise upstanding people who admit to signing up their robust 4-year-olds for the 6-and-over tennis clinics. It’s an accepted practice for a lanky teen to repeat his sophomore year at a new school, so he gets an age edge on the opposition. And the bigger the stakes, the more involved the age-change operations. Some of them are the work of clearly damaged individuals, while others — to the delight of conspiracy theorists — go all the way to the top. Here are a few things that stick out in the annals of age fraud.

Almonte was one of a number of baseball players who aren’t what they say. As Rob Neyer once pointed out, age changes were happening back in 1906. Still, more recent cases have some commonalities. A 2010 New York Times piece about Major League Baseball’s plans to rid the sport of age manipulation focused on a group of people in the Dominican Republic known as buscones — baseball talent scouts, basically, looking for the next breakout star. (In many cases, doctored documents and the subsequent lies they support originate with buscones.)

Almonte was from the Dominican Republic, as have been several other baseball players with unclear birthdays. Juan Carlos Oviedo was 17 when he became 16-year-old Leo Nunez for the purposes of appearing more attractive to Major League Baseball.

Miguel Tejada angrily stormed out of an interview when he was confronted with documentation that he’d taken two years off his age. There was Jairo Beras, whose 16-going-on-17 situation mystified all sorts of people throughout baseball. And Fausto Carmona played Major League Baseball for years until it was revealed that he was really Roberto Hernandez. He hadn’t been 17 when the Cleveland Indians signed him — he had been 20.

Not everyone is pretending to be younger. In baseball, an older guy can beat up on the shrimpy kids, and situations like Beras’s are the exception. But in a sport like women’s gymnastics, youth is often a major virtue. Tiny preteens fly higher, they rotate faster, they are the little girls in pretty boxes that creepy judges love.

At the Olympics, there is an age limit in place — competitors must be at least 16. Gymnasts always look young, but when the athletes are still missing teeth, questions begin to arise. In 2008, USA coach Márta Károlyi pointed out that the host country featured one such girl, 4-foot-6 Deng Linlin. (Károlyi’s husband, Bela, had once noted that North Korean gymnast Kim Gwang Suk was missing her two front teeth, though she said it was from a training accident.)

Later, a hacker named “Stryde Hax” found online Chinese databases showing that gold medalist He Kexin was 14. Ultimately, the girls were cleared when Chinese authorities insisted their passports were correct, but not everyone made it out of Beijing unscathed.

A former medalist named Dong Fangxiao, who had won a team bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, signed up to serve as a vault official at the 2008 Games. After it was discovered that the birthday in her accreditation file didn’t match the one she’d had when she competed, she and her teammates were stripped of their prizes. It’s always when you let down your guard that they getcha.

But sometimes you just really need that senior discount. Fangxiao wasn’t the only one to out herself via discrepancy later in life, although her reveal wasn’t as intentional as golfer Tom Shaw’s.

“When I first started out on the tour everyone lied about their ages,” Shaw told the Sun-Sentinel in 1989 by way of explaining why, for four years running back in the day, he’d listed his age as 26. It wasn’t a big deal for a few decades, but when Shaw hit 50 (in real years) and wanted to play on the senior tour, it created an mildly embarrassing bureaucratic holdup.

Some fabricate new identities altogether. Rich Pohle, a 36-year-old never-was, becomes Rocky Perone, young Aussie phenom. Troubled souls like 22-year-old Guerdwich Montimere turn into 16-year-old basketball studs like Jerry Joseph.

Age fraud is threatening to tear India apart. I know that sounds drastic, but the practice has been a major issue across all kinds of sports in India for years now. A 2007 video addresses the disqualification of dozens of young soccer players. In 2012, a normally “soft-spoken octogenarian did not mince words when he spoke about the age fraud … and the embarrassment that it had brought.”

The man, an official in the Indian Football Federation, said that three-fourths of the boys selected for an under-17 evaluation camp were not, in fact, under 17. That same year, age manipulation in cricket was described by Yahoo Cricket as having “taken notorious proportions, with players, with active assistance from parents, coaches and schools, often produc[ing] fake date of birth certificates.”

Late in 2013, the Athletics Federation of India said that six different states would be suspended from all competition due to “the overage and doping menace.” In total, 44 athletes were found to have lied about their age, while 14 had doped. Truly, no sport is safe: This February, 13 Indian athletes were suspended for age fraud during the national kayaking and canoeing championships.

This isn’t sports-related, and I’m not sure the theory entirely makes sense, but still: Wikipedia posits that Joseph Stalin changed his birthday by a year so that he could grow all-powerful enough to demand a truly baller national celebration of his 50th. It worked!

As usual, the beautiful game has an ugly side. International football is free-market in a way that American sports leagues could never conceive of, and one side effect of all the player mobility is that it creates large incentives — whether financial, geographic, or both — to shave a few years off one’s age.

There are numerous stories of soccer players misrepresenting their age, but the phenomenon has historically been most widespread and brazen in Nigeria. The country was banned from international competition for a couple years after an age scandal in 1988. Rumors circulate that players aren’t just a year or two older than they say — they’re five, 10 years apart.

Before the Under-17 World Cup was held in Nigeria in 2010, MRI wrist scans — they use them in India for cricket, too — were implemented to test the ages of players. (According to the BBC, the Nigerian Football Federation dismissed the tests until they tried them on their own team, at which point they dropped 15 players.) Three years later, three Nigerian players on the Under-17 team failed the wrist scan and the team had to play shorthanded.

So prevalent is the problem that a Guardian article tells the story of a worker at the British embassy in Nigeria who would deflect grumpy applicants by pointing to a fake death certificate for himself he had made for a few bucks in Lagos. “Don’t talk to me about it,” he’d say. “I’m dead.”

Filed Under: 30 for 30 Shorts

grant_h_katie_sl_600

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes