BEIJING For a few brief moments, it was as if a curtain had parted. We had one of China's young perhaps too young Olympic gymnasts alone.
Yang Yilin, through no fault of her own, has been one of the stories of these games because of questions about whether she and two other gymnasts on the Chinese team are old enough to compete. China insists they are, but that hasn't erased the doubts that they may be under the minimum age of 16.
Now we had our chance to find out more, to get a close-up look at this 4-foot, 11-inch figure of controversy, as she waited for her medal-winners' news conference to begin.
How fragile she looked, like a baby deer in the headlights of an oncoming SUV. Little pink hearts and the word "love" in blue letters decorated her hair clips. The glitter on her forehead twinkled under the lights. Chalk was encrusted where the skin met her slender fingernails. So thin, so uneasy, so out of place she seemed, in a downstairs room in Beijing's National Indoor Stadium. She'd just won an Olympic bronze medal in all-around gymnastics, one of the toughest sporting tests there is.
Two Americans had stood with her on the podium. Nastia Liukin got the gold, Shawn Johnson the silver, and they were late. As minutes passed, reporters crowded around Yang, scrutinizing, asking questions.
Unlike Johnson, who arrived later, obviously delighted with her medal, Yang displayed little outward emotion. She smiled obediently, all small teeth, when reporters asked her to pose for photos. Her little mouth pursed again when the lenses were turned away.
Perhaps Yang is shy by nature. But, really, she just seems to have been sheltered by the Chinese coaches who direct her life.
"For the drug test," coach Liu Qunlin said, passing Yang a bottle of water so she would be able to provide a sample for the dope-testers.
Then, a little hesitantly, Yang started to answer the questions. And the more she said, the more shocking it was. The answers were brief, spoken without heart. What emerged was a picture of a young girl who has been kept largely cut off from family and the outside world for more than a year, so she could be intensely trained to win medals for China at its own Olympics.
Were your parents here to see you compete, among the cheering crowds?
"I don't know."
When was the last time you went home?"
"Ummm ... before I joined the national team," Yang said, her small voice hard to hear.
When was that?
"More than a year ago."
Will you go on holiday after the games?
"I don't know."
How many holidays do you get a year?
"I have not had a holiday since I joined the national team."
China's national gymnastics squad trains in a sports complex in Beijing, not far from the Temple of Heaven, where elderly men and women keep their aging joints and minds supple with taiji exercises in the misty mornings. The training center is a guarded, single-minded and demanding world, where China's brightest talents are honed to bring glory to their country and the communist government.
State-run TV got a look inside last year. On the gymnasium's end wall was a revolution-red Chinese flag and this slogan in big Chinese characters: "Endure all possible hardships, go all out to achieve success, start from nothing, do one's utmost to catch up."
The Chinese girls' coach, Lu Shanzhen, has gotten his alchemy right at these games, after previously falling short. His young charges beat the United States this week to win China's first women's team gold.
With his square glasses, Lu bears a slight physical resemblance to the Dalai Lama. He's soft-spoken, friendly, if a little awkward in public. Liu Xuan, one of his former gymnasts who won balance beam gold and all-around individual bronze at the Sydney games, says he can be intimidating and stern behind closed doors.
He changed his way of doing things after his team came back from Athens four years ago with just one medal, an all-around bronze for Zhang Nan. He seasoned his young gymnasts for the Beijing games by sending them overseas to compete and by having them compete against each other.
Yang, He Kexin and Jiang Yuyuan are among the six who came out on top. Questions have been raised about those three because of Chinese competition records and media reports that suggested they may be underage and therefore more flexible and less troubled by old injuries or fear.
The body that runs gymnastics and the International Olympic Committee say they've checked the girls' passports, issued by Chinese authorities, and they show they are old enough to be here.
For someone who supposedly turns 16 this August, Yang still seems to have a lot of growing up to do. If the Chinese passports are correct, then Johnson is only 7 months older than Yang. But the age difference seems much larger than that. At the news conference, Johnson was bubbly, talkative, self-assured everything Yang was not.
"They are very confident," Yang noted of the American women.
Asked what she does on her Sundays off, Yang said: "I go to the gymnastics hall to have fun. ... A lot of us play together, 'hitting the duck,' 'running through the line' and 'getting on the cat."'
In "hitting the duck," kids throw and hit each other with a small, sand-filled bag. It wasn't clear what the other games involve, but it sure didn't sound like listening to tunes in your bedroom at home with girlfriends, watching MTV and dreaming about boys.
When questions turned to what Yang might like to do after sports, coach Liu interjected.
"It's too soon," she said. "She hasn't done enough gymnastics yet."
Then, after a few final questions, the curtain closed again.
"Let her rest a little," the coach said, cutting the moment short.
And to Yang: "Drink some water."
John Leicester is an Olympics columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicesterap.org