Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.

The world saw Lin Miaoke, right, sing at the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony - but actually heard the voice of Yang Peiyi, left.

So now it’s confirmed: the spectacular Beijing Olympics opening ceremony – watched live on television by over a billion people worldwide – had been a little more than what it seemed.

What we saw was not what we actually heard. It turns out that the little girl in a red dress, who sang “Ode to the Motherland” as China’s flag was paraded into Beijing’s National Stadium, wasn’t really singing. Clever stage management and sound mixing just made us believe she was.

Beijing games organisers have confirmed that Lin Miaoke, aged 9, whom we saw on TV, was lip-syncing to the sound of another girl, 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was only heard but not seen — all because she was deemed not “cute enough”. And they just forgot to tell us there were two…

To refresh memories, here’s that moment from 8 August 2008, as captured by China’s national broadcaster CCTV:

Since the story broke a couple of days later, it has been covered very widely in print, broadcast and online media. There has been particularly good coverage in the New York Times.

An extract from that story:

“The Chinese government has taken great pains to present the best possible image to the outside world during the Olympics, and perfection was the goal for the dazzling opening ceremonies. The filmmaker Zhang Yimou, who oversaw the production, has earned international praise for staging a performance that many considered one of the most spectacular in Olympic history.

“But to achieve the spectacular, not only did organizers fake the song, but they also have acknowledged that one early sequence of the stunning fireworks shown to television viewers actually included digitally enhanced computer graphics used for ‘theatrical effect.'”

And here’s how CNN covered the news of the fake incident on 12 August 2008:

The blogosphere is teeming with discussions on this — and not just in English. It sure raises a number of concerns.

The Olympic motto is made up of three Latin words: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, which mean “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. At the rate things are moving — with media images taking precedence over accomplishment — we might soon find ‘cuter’ being annexed to it. (Somebody please find the right Latin word.)

But let’s face it: this is not the first time that the world’s greatest festival has been carefully stage-crafted for the benefit of broadcast television, nor will it be the last. The pressure on host nations is immense to show their best face to the world. Perhaps our Chinese friends took that literally, and opted to showcase the supposedly cuter Lin Miaoke to the billion plus audience. (Apparently, a party official deemed that the face of little Miss Yang Peiyi wasn’t good enough – both look perfectly adorable to me…)

Not for a moment do I condone the trickery that Beijing tried to get away with. At the same time, let this be seen as part of a growing, disturbing trend: the broadcast television ‘tail’ has been wagging the Olympics dog for quite some time.

Since the summer Olympics were first commercially broadcast in Rome in 1960, both television’s technology and industry have advanced leaps and bounds. Today, broadcast rights are a very significant source of income for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the host countries/cities.

As the IOC official website says: “Increases in broadcast revenue over the past two decades have provided the Olympic Movement and sport with an unprecedented financial base.” And according to the most recent data available, theat revenue accounts for a little over half of all the income that Olympic marketing generates.

That’s all well and good — much of competitive sport today relies so heavily on corporate sponsorships, and television rights are a key part of sports financing.

However, we must worry when so much time, effort, creativity and money is being invested in staging ever more spectacular opening (and to a lesser extent, closing) ceremonies. Yes, it’s a time for the world to celebrate the best and the brightest of the Global Family. And there’s absolutely no harm in having a gala party. But should that extend to rolling out all the tricks of showbiz and make belief? With such a massive global audience following the games not just on television but now also online, where do the IOC and hosts draw the line?

As the world becomes more and more media saturated, these pressures are only set to increase. This year, for the first time, the IOC also allowed online video platform YouTube (owned by Google) to carry about three hours a day of exclusive content — summaries and highlights — from Olympic Broadcasting Services on a dedicated channel.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the world of broadcast television distorts reality on a daily basis. This is an industry that prefers and promotes those whom it considers more cute, pretty, good-looking and sexy. It makes no secret of choosing style over substance. And not just in pure entertainment, but in ALL areas of coverage, including news and current affairs. I have been pointing out how this also affects the coverage of issues like poverty, disasters and development. Even in such serious, factual coverage, many television producers would go with faces that they think are tele-genic, cute or at least particularly pathetic-looking…

Television audiences, by and large, have come to terms with all these ‘adjustments and improvements’ to the murky, messy and unruly real world (yes, some pockets of resistance are fighting a brave vanguard battle, but their numbers are no match for the uncritical couch potatoes).

The challenge is when the real world of Olympic sports tries to mix with the make-belief world of broadcast television to reach out to all those billions of eyeballs. Whose values, standards and rules would then apply?

While the IOC jealously guards time-cherished Olympic principles, it has been slow to modernise and keep up with the times. It must find ways to balance the Olympics integrity with media’s obsession for manufactured reality and feel-good, look-great extravaganzas. And if IOC thinks manging broadcast rights is tricky, just wait till they have to deal with the more bewildering and multitudinous online and mobile media platforms…

What happened in Beijing once again rekindles a long simmering debate. It goes much deeper than an overzealous host nation trying to picture-perfect its proud moment. It takes us right to the heart of the Olympics, and tests if the founding ideals can survive the corporate media realities of the twenty first century.