A little less than meets the eye

August 15, 2008

That Great Wall, shown in sweeping vistas before the start of every Olympics broadcast? Millions of Legos, roughed up to look ancient and painstakingly constructed on a model railroad layout, complete with the foam mountains and the teeny trees.

The Bird's Nest? Really, a bird's nest, spray-painted silver for the cameras by whoever is the Martha Stewart of China while the Games actually take place in some dreary high school stadium in suburban Beijing.

Michael Phelps? Actually a computer-generated character, created in the Pixar studios.

One week into the Beijing Fauxlympics, and I'm not sure what I'm watching any more.

Let's see, so far we've learned that the giant footstep-fireworks marching across the sky during last Friday's opening ceremony were, at least for those watching at home, computer-generated. And that the adorable, pigtailed moppet in the red dress was lip-syncing to a taped song sung by another girl, less adorable but vocally superior. (Or, who knows, perhaps the girl with the angel voice, a 7-year-old named Yang Peiyi, couldn't perform in the ceremony herself because she was too busy getting ready for the 2012 Olympics, when she'll be a 16-year-old member of the Chinese "women's" gymnastics team.)

So perhaps it should be no surprise that some of the crowd in the less-than-crowded stands at some events aren't actually rabid fans of, say, handball - they're trained volunteer squads in matching yellow shirts and with inflatable cheer sticks who are dispatched like SWAT teams to fill seats and make some noise.

You gotta love the Chinese. What other country would - or could - turn its entire population into a cast of extras for this summer's blockbuster, the 2008 Olympics? What other country would cite "the national interest" for replacing the cute girl's voice with a better one?

The funny thing is, the Olympic hosts have been mostly unabashed and upfront about all this manipulation of reality - they just want to present the most flawless games possible, however much computer enhancement, over-dubbing and Tibet-protester-cleansing is required to put forth the image of perfection.

Of course, it should be noted, it's not just the control-freak Chinese who are stage-managing this extravaganza to within a centimeter of its life. Give NBC its due for stretching the meaning of the word "live" that it displays on the screen during some prime-time broadcasts - yes, they're live for those of us on the East Coast, not so much for those in the Mountain and Pacific time zones.

As the song goes, it's 5 o'clock somewhere. Maybe just not where you are.

In any event, who cares, really? At a time when a lot of people get their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, we're pretty well conditioned to accept the ersatz as a more entertaining version of reality, to take the truthiness over the less amusing truth. NBC's ratings are way up compared to the last couple of Olympics, particularly here in Baltimore, the city most glued to its TVs as it totally Phelpses out.

I'm loving this Olympics, buffed-up staging and all. I love the Gumby-bodied swimmers, the girls with their wacky-color manicures, the frat-boy relay celebrations - when will one of them smash a Gatorade bottle on his forehead? - the goofy faces they make trying to air-seal their goggles. (Hey, Speedo: can you please fix Michael's leaking ones already?) I love the blue eye-shadowed gymnasts, whatever age they are - although I must say I worry about that little one who pulls her hair into such a tight bun, I think her hairline has started receding.

So I guess I can take the 99 percent that appears to be the going rate for truth these days, and accept that 1 percent gloss on reality as something of cover charge for the show.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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