A Clean, Well-Lighted Place

Enjoy the Olympics! Just don't think the Beijing we're seeing is the complete picture
August 24, 2008

DUCT TAPE is the official tool of the Beijing Games illusionists. In neat strips the size of Band-Aids, all across the Olympic landscape, it is discreetly stretched over manufacturers' names on hundreds of urinals and soap dispensers, fire alarms and thermostats. Any logo outside the Olympic corporate family—that means you, American Standard toilets—is hidden beneath the sticky stuff.

China right now is a government by duct tape. Before the Games the nation's leaders paid lip service to the ideals of openness and free speech. That was subterfuge. In reality it's as if the Communist party planners asked themselves, What else can we make disappear? China's Olympic organizers—enabled by the IOC's docile lords and protected by NBC's friendly lens—have used varying forms of camouflage to produce a Truman Show: a perfect Olympic set, unencumbered by reality. You have witnessed the pure glory of the Beijing Games, with Michael Phelps as Aqua Man, with Usain Bolt as the Fastest Man, with Dara Torres as the Everywoman, but you have also been the victim of misdirection.

This propaganda effort began with the opening ceremonies. Who knew the Red Machine choreographers would employ the genius of Milli Vanilli? In your program, precious Lin Miaoke, 9, dangled like a hummingbird in the Bird's Nest, singing a lovely ode in which her lips didn't quite match the lyrics. The songstress was actually seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, but, with a slight snaggletooth, she was deemed too unattractive by China's mean-girls government to be the right face to launch the Games. Beijing organizers also admitted that some of the fireworks the world saw explode over the stadium were fakes, digitally produced figments of the organizers' imagination. "Most of the audience thought it was filmed live," one visual effects technician told the Beijing Times. "So that was mission accomplished."

In their pursuit of perfection, or at least the appearance of it, Chinese policy makers are OCD by nature. They are TV's Monk, detesting mess and disorder. Chinese officials demanded that citizens refrain from spitting on the sidewalks to make their house nice for guests. And, in an attempt to appease Westerners, officials also promised to set aside protest sites—but only far from the Games, to keep demonstrators from mucking up the Olympic view with FREE TIBET signs.

I've seen only one person spit, a cab driver. I've seen no protesters at a site. Last Saturday, at one of three designated protest havens, Ritan Park, I found a man flying a kite made out of a Hefty bag and two sticks, a girl playing with a pink balloon and climbers scaling a rock wall. (The park is a 30-minute drive from the Bird's Nest, the closest Olympic site.) All were oblivious to the fact they were frolicking on protest territory. As one parkgoer said, "I haven't heard of that."

Why would she? Anyone who wants to air a grievance must fill out a lengthy application. Not one form is known to have been approved. According to reports in The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, some Chinese nationals who have endured the paperwork have been detained and imprisoned. It's like a game of Mother May I, where dissenters gain permission to step forward only to become more visible to police. "It's an old technique that [the People's Republic of China] has used, starting with Mao," said J. Oliver Williams, a political science professor at North Carolina State University who was a Fulbright Research Scholar in China. "Mao launched the Hundred Flowers campaign for the same purpose. He said, 'Let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred shades of thought contend.' Then once people expressed their opinions, the regime rounded up the ones considered in dissent. Mao even said he was trying to coax the snakes out of their pits so he could chop their heads off."

Was the IOC duped into letting its rings be used as a trap? The IOC has pulled its verbal punches even when faced with China's protest-promise switcheroo. "It has become clear that, to date, what had been announced publicly doesn't appear, in reality, to be happening," said IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies in an e-mail. "A number of questions are understandably therefore being asked. The IOC is keen to see those questions answered by the authorities."

The IOC has the power to demand answers, but its members have followed along with the Communist-run protocol: You see what China wants you to see; you hear what China wants you to hear. This is not Athens, where activists left their thoughts in graffiti. This is not Sydney, where revelers of all nations gathered in the harbor area to join Aussies in cheers of "Oi, Oi, Oi." In Beijing, graffiti has been scrubbed from the walls, with an entire city looking as if it's been Photoshopped. There are no rowdy street fests, with so many tourist visas having been denied by a wary government. The ubiquitous police watch everyone, hovering over hotel lobbies and club exits, acting as de facto chaperones to Olympic sponsors who are used to partying as if they own the place—which they usually kind of do. Advertisers and other Western corporate titans make a living crafting their versions of reality, but in Beijing they've been beaten at their own game. Chinese authorities cede no ground, not for anyone.

The people of China are genuinely helpful, authentically sunny—but the government's Games have another face, a reflection of the modern Olympic ideal: We're asked to buy into a mirage, where superhuman feats are possible, where fair play is an ethos. We know better—given the constant suspicions of doping and the possible presence of underaged gymnasts, the Swedish wrestler who refused his bronze medal and the point when James Blake thought Fernando Gonàlez cheated him—but many of us cannot help but be suckers for splendor. China knows this. It has us just where it wants us: so rapt by the glorious Olympic Games that we're not seeing anything else.

Your one stop for offbeat humor and the wackiest sports stories and links, including Hot Clicks and the Daily List, is SI.com/extramustard.

Protesters must fill out a lengthy application. NONE HAS BEEN APPROVED.