Image is everything from fake fireworks to miming child singer

Wed, Aug 13, 2008, 01:00

BEIJING LETTER:LIP-SYNCHING singers, fake fireworks and unsmiling cops - all too often the Olympics are all about appearances. Every Olympics incorporates elements of the Potemkin village, with the host cities erecting beautiful fronts to showcase progress and hide the fact that sometimes there isn't all that much to report going on behind the sporting facade, writes Clifford Coonan.

Beijing is different, in so many ways. The Olympic Games have changed the character of the Chinese capital and reflected, and at times driven, a broader change in society. There is real progress and genuine development. But as virtual technology gains in sophistication at an incredible rate, it's been difficult for even the Beijing organisers to resist a bit of virtual sleight-of-hand.

Organisers revealed yesterday that the 29 footprint firework display at the heart of Friday's opening ceremony contained a fair whack of special effects, and that much of the fireworks section outside the stadium was in fact a digitally enhanced video which was superimposed onto live footage of the event.

Gao Xiaolong, head of the visual effects team, told the Beijing Times it had taken almost a year to create the 55-second sequence. He said actual fireworks could be seen outside the stadium but it was logistically impossible to film them by helicopter, so the decision was made to recreate the effect digitally.

The ruse even extended to getting the weather forecast right so as to simulate the same smog as on the night, and adding camera shake to simulate filming from a helicopter.

"Seeing how it worked out, it was still a bit too bright compared to the actual fireworks. But most of the audience thought it was filmed live - so that was mission accomplished," said Mr Gao.

And there I was, frantically trying to work out how they did that.

Mission accomplished, too, for little Lin Miaoke, who won the hearts and minds of the Chinese people for her stirring rendition of Ode to the Motherland at the opening ceremony. But there was growing anger in Beijing at the revelation that she lip-synched the rousing patriotic anthem, while the real singer was a little girl whose looks just didn't make the grade.

Chen Qigang, musical director of the opening ceremony, said in an interview with local media that Ode to the Motherland was not actually sung by Lin Miaoke, who has been christened the "Smiling Angel", but by Yang Peiyi, also seven years old.

Miaoke made a huge splash in the domestic and international media for her performance.

There were tales aplenty of how Miaoke, who has been in TV advertisements with actress Zhao Wei and champion hurdler Liu Xiang, had to get through a tough interview process and beat off hundreds of other hopefuls to get the nod to sing the song.

Mr Chen said Lin Miaoke was chosen ahead of Yang Peiyi to appear on the stage because she was better looking. It was a question of the national interest, he insisted.

Yang Peiyi, a first grader at a primary school in Beijing, said in an interview with CCTV that she did not regret the fact that her voice, but not her face, was used for the ceremony. She was happy that she was able to appear in the first place.

But webizens were horrified at the message this sends to children.

"Since this happened, seven-year-old kids all think you should judge a person according to his or her image. They now think that being good looking is better than having a good voice. Shame!" said one online commentator. Another wrote: "Personal image can have an effect on a country, and a negative image is not in the national interest? What a joke! Why don't they just cancel the programme? Don't relate everything to the national interest." Once you get beyond the sporting fields of dreams, appearances and perception is everything.

Beijing's police have been told to smile more, but the grim expressions of the city's constabulary show that it clearly isn't working, and an IOC member is taking them to task about it. The blue-uniformed, white-gloved coppers stand at the intersections, barking orders at tardy motorists not keeping the road clear, their faces set in stone. This despite the large road sign near Tiananmen Square reminding the police that they are supposed to smile. "Smiling Beijing Traffic Police" it reads.

Even that doesn't have any kind of impact. Norwegian Gerhard Heiberg, chairman of the IOC's marketing commission, has brought the issue to the attention of Chinese officials and called on them to encourage a happier and more welcoming attitude. The thousands of volunteers on the streets of Beijing are helpful and smiling, Heiberg told the Norwegian daily Aftenposten.

"The police and military, on the other hand, need to act differently. Their faces look like they are made of stone. They're seriously scaring the foreigners in Beijing. That's why I've talked to China's political authorities and the Olympics organisers at our daily meetings. I've asked them to get people to smile more," said the former athlete.

Heiberg has made appearances on Chinese TV and Olympic websites urging the Chinese guardians to keep grinning. "When I mentioned this in important meetings, the hosts began to laugh. Now I'm called the ambassador of smiles," he said. To be fair to the Chinese security forces, they do have a lot on their minds. The fatal stabbing of a relative of the US Olympic party at the weekend and the wounding of his wife has caused great distress in Beijing and comes after years of security preparation.

And there is the even greater threat of some kind of bomb attack by Muslim Uighur separatists in the restive region of Xinjiang, who have staged a series of daring suicide bomb attacks in recent days, heightening the security alert in the capital.

The general feeling in China, however, is that soldiers and police are smiling more, so his complaints will come as a bit of a shock. I can attest that the People's Liberation Army soldiers who guard my apartment building smile courteously every day as I present my passport to enter my own home.

Another question of perception is visible on the websites listing the performance of different countries. Chinese websites have China leading the medals table because it has won more golds than the United States, even though the US has won more medals overall. It's all about who appears to win more.