Sam Eifling: China’s Potemkin Olympics

Editor, reporter Sam Eifling writes in the Columbia Journalism Review:

The swell of sour press about the Olympics may have begun with a couple of crooked teeth. It was clear to anyone who’d ever watched a person sing while smiling that nine-year-old Lin Miaoke was lip-synching her rendition of a national ode at the opening ceremonies, but that, by itself, is hardly a scandal. What stunk was the revelation that she was mouthing words sung by seven-year-old Yang Peiyi, who was excluded because she didn’t look, according to the subsequent admission of the musical director, “flawless in image, internal feelings, and expression.”

The media had accepted Beijing’s ban on public spitting and its efforts to scrub its filthy air as acceptable Olympics-prep primping. For China to shame a homely child for insufficient cuteness was another matter. Since then, China has continually played into what’s becoming the new motif of Olympics coverage: the fallback narrative of China as a land of polar contrasts has been reduced to one of a single China, in which much of what was built to dazzle the world is, at second glance, a crock.

… Sports journalists, like political journalists, have a high pomp threshold. They acknowledge that schmaltz and canned enthusiasm are the trademarks of spectacle, and they will let most hokum slide. Outright manipulation, though, raises their dander, and toy department or no, reporters live by free speech. It’s probably too much to expect the contractual broadcaster – NBC, in this case – to call for more openness; the network did, after all, pay nearly $900 million for its own exclusive rights. But bully for the print journos, including star writers at two sports media titans, finding another grand theme to these games besides Michael Phelps-as-Aquaman.

Why did it take so long for the press to find its voice? The drumbeat of critical coverage has been audible since China was awarded the Games, and only intensified with every broken promise of Internet freedom and Beijing’s pre-Games expulsion of the homeless. Everyone expected surly China to clamp down on dissent harder than Athens or Sydney; that was no surprise, so in one regard, it wasn’t as newsworthy as the sports everyone came to see. What observers didn’t predict is the general tackiness of China’s crackdowns. After giving their hosts the benefit of the doubt, the Western press has become increasingly skeptical because of the outright abuses, yes—but also because of the petty fibs and overall “phoniness.” In attempting to project strength, China instead advertised its own insecurities, and became a ripe target for criticism.