Image acrobatics

Our view : In Beijing, Olympic performers and facts are flexible

August 14, 2008

Much has been written about the image-conscious nature of the Chinese and how hosting the Olympics represents a coming-out party for a country that has often kept the West at an arm's distance. But if there's one theme that has emerged from the first week of athletic competition, it's the host nation's unabashed willingness to manipulate reality.

While the Chinese women's gymnastic team performed impressively Tuesday night and won a gold medal over the U.S. and Russia, it strains credulity to suggest that all its athletes are at least 16 years old, as required by Olympic rules. The Americans and Russians may have had plenty of small competitors, but the Chinese team had several who appeared to be closer to Happy Meal age than prom night candidates.

In gymnastics, there's a premium on flexibility and moments of attempted weightlessness. A young team can be a tremendous advantage. And yet the International Olympic Committee considers the matter resolved because the gymnasts in question (several of whom are documented as 14 in earlier registration records) have government-issued passports alleging they are 16.

How ironic that officials who go to great lengths to test for drugs and even gender apparently can't be bothered with making sure the Chinese aren't fudging the most basic of standards.

This could be regarded as one of those "oh, well," moments that frustrated sports fans can only smile and shake their heads about - except it fits a larger pattern. The moving patriotic ballad performed by a 9-year-old in Beijing's opening ceremonies? Turns out it wasn't sung by the smiling pigtailed girl on camera but by a younger girl who sang better but was judged not to be nearly cute enough. The evening's fireworks were electronically enhanced for a billion or so TV viewers. Even before the ceremonies had begun, China engaged in a public relations blitz aimed at deflecting world attention from its human rights abuses and environmental disasters. It still isn't a country that embraces public protests or dissent.

If the Chinese wanted to send a message to the West this month, they've certainly succeeded. Clearly, when the country's ruling Communist Party gets involved, appearances can be deceiving.

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