China’s Little Olympic Tricks

First of all, here’s confirmation of the point James Fallows made on his Atlantic Monthly weblog, namely that Chinese Olympic officials pre-recorded the spectacular chain-of-exploding-fireworks display that allegedly happened during the Olympics’ opening ceremony last Friday. From the Czech newspaper Lidové noviny we have an account (A Small Chinese Deception) of how it’s even true that some of those sensational explosion effects did not even actually happen, but were merely animation effects of the sort you would expect out of an animated movie from DreamWorks. That much Wang Wei, vice-chairman of the Beijing Olympic Committee admitted today to reporters. Incidentally, the caption to the one picture accompanying the article at the top, showing the Olympic flame, speculates “Perhaps the lighting of the Olympic flame was also only from a recording.”

And then there is the rent-a-spectator operation, revealed by Der Spiegel (China Puts On-Order Applauders in the Tribunes). It’s truly a bummer for anyone on that committee to have to gaze upon empty spaces in the spectator-stands at any of the athletic events they have spent so much time and effort organizing – and, more crucially, from which televised images might be broadcast back to anywhere else in the world (not to forget the rest of China). Ah, but always remember that bodies are extraordinarily easy to find -and then to manipulate – in a state with a population in excess of 1.3 billion and an authoritarian regime. So for many of the events that have taken place already it is clear that people (Chinese, of course) have been shipped in to give the impression of a full, raucous house. (I’ll call them rent-a-spectators here, and similar terms, although do understand that these people are volunteers, at least according to our old friend Wang Wei, the committee vice-chairman.)

How do we know about this? Quite simply because it is obvious: the Olympic authorities make no attempt to camouflage their rent-a-crowds, and indeed these are generally unmistakable in their identical yellow T-shirts. (It seems a special workers’ contingent was sent to cheer on the early field hockey matches, all wearing shirts – color not disclosed – with the English slogan “Cheering from Beijing Workers.”) Oh, and they really pour it on with the unbiased applause – meant for all sides in the competitions they are witnessing.

Why are these made-to-order spectators necessary in the first place, given the reports of widespread sell-outs among the Olympic events? Well, because just because someone has bought a ticket – or has otherwise attained it – doesn’t mean he intends to go use it. But each rent-a-spectator does have firm instructions about what to do if/when the person who has actually paid for the seat shows up: the stand-in is to take his yellow T-shirt and get lost, immediately. Still, the Olympic authorities are already trying to come up with ways to bolster what you could call “sincere” event attendance. It’s too late at this point to undo the tightening of visa standards that the Chinese government put through prior to the Games’ start – they had to keep out potential protestors or other subversives, you understand – and so far the concept of just throwing open the events to whoever wants to come, for free, is still beyond consideration. But it seems they do intend to try to get more tickets in the pipeline to travel agencies (for foreigners) and to local organizations (for native Chinese).

UPDATED: And now there is this. (English-language link from the BBC News site, until I can find a suitable non-English-language one.) Didn’t that sort of thing sink Milli Vanilli back in the 1990s?

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