Friday, February 6, 2009

Olympics 2008: Made in China. A cheap, low-quality imitation of the real thing.

(Yeah, yeah, I know this is old news. It just so happens that this blog entry is a rerun. I originally posted on Facebook on Monday, August 25, 2008. It's worth keeping around, and giving wider distribution. Blogspot seems to have a longer memory than other places on the Internet, so this seemed like a good place to repost it for posterity. How long does "posterity" last on the Internet?)

Okay, so let's see what the Chinese Olympics organizers (and the Chinese government) did to the Olympics. Please do not extend this criticism to cover all Chinese people. You may, however, wish to draw analogies to Chinese industries and Chinese businesses as they attempt to engage the rest of the world.

1 - They controlled the images you saw on TV. If they didn't want you to see something, you didn't see it. They gave the video feed to NBC, and NBC distributed it without questioning what they were seeing. It was like a really crummy magic show, where it's obvious what the magician doesn't want you to see. During the road races, ugly parts of the city were hidden behind giant screens. In other aerial shots, the helicopter-borne cameras were carefully aimed, never pointing at the ugly stuff. And between the Chinese meddling and NBC's editing, we missed out on an awful lot of the competitions, those that didn't feature either Chinese or American athletes excelling.

2 - They faked it. The televised version of the opening ceremonies included an unbelievable amount and complexity of fireworks, and it turned out that most of those unbelievable fireworks weren't to be believed after all. A lot of them were CGI (computer-generated imagery, also known as animation) and a lot of them were prerecorded ahead of time and spliced into the video feed. (See also item 1, about who controlled the video feed.)

3 - They faked it even more. They pulled a "Singing in the Rain" trick at the opening ceremonies, splicing the beautiful voice of one little girl onto the beautiful face of another little girl, who became known as "the face of China." It was lip-syncing, pure and simple. The Chinese Olympics organizers (and the government?) acted like it was no big deal and didn't really matter. Ask Milli Vanilli if lip-syncing "doesn't really matter." Or go watch "Singing in the Rain" again and decide if it "doesn't really matter." It's dishonest. And it's symbolic of China's modus operandi.

4 - They cheated. Not only that, but the national government was complicit in the cheating. When questions were raised about the ages of some of the gymnasts (and the number of gymnasts of questionable age keeps rising), it was the Chinese government that attempted to settle the question by issuing the girls passports with altered birthdates.

5 - They plagiarized. Or they stole. However you want to put it, the Chinese copied the arrangements of more than 200 national anthems, which had been written for the Athens Olympics in 2004, and rerecorded them with a Chinese orchestra. They did this "without attribution, permission or compensation." And then they lied about it, insisting that the anthems had been arranged by a Chinese composer. The Washington Post and the Salt Lake Tribune have both written articles about this. Somebody did a very technical side-by-side analysis of the arrangements and concluded that the Athens and Beijing arrangements are nearly identical - except that the Beijing ones are missing some of the original arranger's dynamics. In other words, they were not-very-good copies of the original. Once again, this is symbolic of the way China seems to do everything.

6 - They scalped, and they stole. Some Chinese websites were selling nonexistent tickets for hundreds of dollars, and the victims didn't find out until they got to China that they'd been scammed. The official Chinese Olympics officials say that the websites were bogus and there's nothing they can do about it, but based on everything else I've seen about these Olympics, I have my suspicions. I don't think it was just lowlifes and hackers running the scams.

7 - They padded the house. This may be even worse than item 6. At some of the venues, they hadn't sold enough tickets - REAL tickets, that is - to fill the stands, so they conscripted people off the streets and filled the stands with all these people who either didn't want to be there, or who got in for free, in order to give the impression that they had a full house at all events and that the average Chinese person really wanted to be there.

8 - They bullied. That is, the government bullied. They took all the undesirable people off the streets and even out of the city, and hid them away where the athletes, the spectators, the visitors and the journalists couldn't see them and wouldn't find them. They shut down Internet sites that tried to send out information that wasn't favorable to the country, the government or the Games. They effectively shut down free speech, even by the athletes, for the duration of the Games. To build the venues, they displaced hundreds, thousands, of residents, and demolished their homes, without even arranging for them a new place to live.

9 - I'm not worried about the medal count. The Olympics have always been heavily nationalistic, even in the days of ancient Greece. It seems that the hosting nation has always enjoyed a home-court advantage, and the ideal of amateurs competing was only ever an ideal. But the athleticism was real. I really can't fault the Chinese athletic machine any more than I can fault the Russian, American or (do you remember?) East German athletic machines. I saw some true athleticism from the Chinese athletes, and from all the athletes, really. And it seemed like I saw unsportsmanlike conduct from everyone except the Chinese athletes. The Chinese athletes, like the Japanese and the Russians, were a class act. I put this point here just so nobody thinks I'm only griping because China got more gold medals than anybody else.

In conclusion: I will admit that the 2008 Olympics, as portrayed on NBC, were visually stunning. But it was all a facade - no more than skin deep. Worse, it was fake. Not all of it, but enough of it to matter. The Chinese were dishonest in their execution of the Olympics - repeatedly, blatantly, arrogantly, and disingenuously. What's really incredible is that, for as long as the Olympics lasted, the world bought it. They let it happen.

One American blogger told a story that is symbolic of the entire Beijing Olympics and, by extension, everything about China. According to this reporter, one entire city block was hidden behind and beneath a vinyl cover, which was draped over a metal framework. The cover was painted to look like a high-class block of office buildings, complete with painted people looking out of the windows. It looked very realistic from a moving vehicle, from a distance, or in photographs. It was a perfect symbolism for the Games: a thin trompe l'oeil screen fashioned to look beautiful on the surface, while all the ugliness still existed underneath, where you weren't allowed to look.

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