Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Manufacturing the Olympics

The whole kerfuffle around the Olympics' lip-synching switch, pre-taped fireworks and "volunteer fans"–which got a nice front-page expose from Bruce Arthur in the National Post this morning-better reveals the true nature of the Beijing Olympics and China than most of the coverage so far. If you're one of the five people living under a rock somewhere who hasn't yet heard about this, here's the basic run-down. During the opening ceremonies, the Chinese featured a song entitled "Ode to the Motherland" that was sung by seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, but lip-synched live by nine-year-old Lin Miaoke because Yang's face was apparently too round and her teeth were too crooked. Not content with this masterpiece of propaganda, they then inserted pre-taped fireworks footage into the montage of live fireworks to add to the event and sent in volunteer cheer squads to fill some of the empty seats.

This trifecta of deceptive maneuverings shows us plenty about China. If they just let things happen as they may, this wouldn't get a ton of attention: no one cares if a seven-year-old has perfect teeth, or how long a fireworks montage is, or even if not every Olympic venue is perfectly full. Instead, they've created a firestorm of negative press out of their attempts to spin things just right. The whole censoring-the-Internet bit is right up the same alley, and it shows just how badly the Chinese understand the Western media: by trying to keep reporters from writing about Amnesty International and Tibet, which might have just been brief subplots in the vast array of Olympic coverage, they created a boatload of stories on how the government was trying to limit the media's access.

Really, they should have hired some Western PR specialists. The best way to get a reporter to write a story is not to provide him with information on it, but rather to tell him "there's nothing to see here": anyone with even a smattering of journalistic instincts knows when someone's trying to hide something. Cover-ups usually make the best stories as well, and often lead to effects far greater in magnitude than just telling the truth in the first place would have caused: just ask Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein or Richard Milhous Nixon.

It's the whole authoritarian spirit of the Chinese Olympics that is so disturbing, though. Clearly, good is not good enough. A seven-year-old girl can have a beautiful voice, but crooked teeth? She's got no place in their Olympics. Cheering and other expressions of fandom? Not unless they're state-approved [Deadspin]. Tibetan bartenders? Better expel them, as well as question their black employers, discriminate against black bar patrons, approve the lyrics of foreign entertainers and prevent local residents from inviting foreigners to their apartments [The Washington Post]. Chatting with foreigners? Only allowed if you don't ask about age, marriage, health, home, personal experience, religion, political views or occupation. While you're at it, you'd better be careful with how you walk around foreigners and how you speak with handicapped athletes [Gawker]. Reading Fire Joe Morgan or Joe Posnanski's blog? Nope, no sabermetrics here [Joe Posnanski]. Planning to protest? Make sure you check with the police first [Charles Hutzler, The Associated Press].

As Arthur writes, these Olympics are certainly impressive, but the deception and the image-management makes you wonder what's real.

"What China has built here is incredible. The architecture, the machinery, the armies of volunteers and an Opening Ceremony with images that were surely seared into the soul of every Chinese citizen, and not a few citizens of the world, who watched. These are the Superpower Olympics, damn the costs. As Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post put it, the four billion people who will see these Olympics will witness "the behemoth that is being born."
But they are the Hollywood Olympics, too, complete with false fronts and lead actors and a cast of thousands, or millions. At its heart, this is a bright, shining, $40-billion lie. If the whole thing is being staged in Cambodia, don't be surprised."

What the Chinese government fails to realize is that their own efforts at control are only making things worse. The protests in Tibet earlier this year would have been less of a story if the government hadn't tried to keep the word from getting out. The smog would have been reported on, for sure, but in a less-embarrassing and less-frequent fashion if they didn't keep trying to tell us that everything's fine. Amnesty International probably would have been a bit player at most in these Olympics if the government hadn't blocked their website. No one would have criticized Yang Peiyi's appearance if she had sang, but by using a double, they touched off a firestorm of controversy. Normal, spontaneous cheering isn't a negative story, and might even be a positive one, but telling your fans how to cheer isn't going to earn you rave reviews.

The control, the censorship and the stage-managing make it easy to be cynical and skeptical even during moments that should be great promotional pieces. Even China's gold medal in team gymnastics is largely discredited due to the controversy about the gymnasts' ages [Ann Killion, San Jose Mercury News]. Open the country and the Games up, play by the rules of the rest of the world, let the press do their job, and you'll be surprised at the praise you'll get. If you try and keep the lid on for too long, it will eventually blow off in your face in a shower of hot steam.

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