Olympic controversy alert: China likes to fake it

Over the last 20 odd years, the Olympics have been pretty predictable when it comes to controversy. You can expect that a handful of athletes will get accused of doping, that a gymnastics judge or two will make some really bad calls and that at least one bizarre scandal will surface and leave you scratching your head. For the Beijing games, that special controversy was the lip-syncing debacle involving two little girls.

If you haven’t heard by now, here’s the gist: A representative of the Chinese government didn’t like the look of the 7-year-old girl (Yang Peiyi) chosen to sing at the opening ceremony, so he had a “cuter” substitute, 9-year-old Lin Miaoke, installed to lip-sync along to Yang’s voice (wow, China has the gold for “Biggest A-Hole Move” in the bag). If you’re wondering just how hideous this poor Yang is, check out her photo.

Where’s the gross deformity? The eye-patch? The horns? You can stop looking — she’s your typical 7-year-old cutie pie. And her show-stopping replacement?

Yeah, she’s cute, too. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the lack of sensitivity, given the country’s stellar human rights’ record, especially when it comes to girls. But you’d think the host nation would have more important things to do than swapping cute for cute like, oh, I don’t know, adding fake CGI fireworks into the ceremony broadcast, stacking their women’s gymnastics team with 14-year-old ringers (allegedly) or hiding all their gold from Michael Phelps. So, what gives?

“We had to make that choice,” explained Chen Qigang, the musical director (and whistleblower) in a recent interview. “We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance. The audience will understand that it’s in the national interest.” Yes, we do understand — Yang’s side. Most of us in the LGBT community are painfully aware of what it’s like to be judged on appearance — to not be feminine enough or traditionally beautiful — and to lose out because of rhetoric like “national interest” or “family values.”

To be fair, though, we are coming from very different cultural perspectives. When China says “national interest,” they really mean it. The Chinese are big on collective pride, honor and saving face (the idea, not the lesbian movie), and they will go to great lengths, obviously, to keep up appearances on the world stage. But it seems to me that putting your best face forward would be a lot easier if it’s your face. You don’t think a little girl with a great voice and slight overbite is attractive enough to represent your country? Fine. Bring in a performer who has the look and the voice that measures up to your standards. China has the biggest population on the planet — it shouldn’t be that hard to find the total package.

What’s annoyed me the most is the dismissive arguments that have followed since the scandal broke last week. One Olympic official tried to justify the switcheroo with a convoluted comparison to a football coach benching one of his players. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard of a more talented athlete getting pulled from the big game for a cuter one (she’ll get more endorsements if she’s hot, of course, but that’s a whole other rant).

In Gail CollinsNew York Times column, she argued that Americans overreacted, “given the fact that families here gather together in front of the TV to watch reality shows in which unattractive people are permitted to audition for talent contests so that the judges can make fun of them.” I respectfully disagree. Contestants are ridiculed on shows like American Idol because they’re untalented. If they’re also unattractive, well, that’s just a bonus.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t allowed to feel outraged or deceived by the incident. True, Hollywood makes cuts based on appearance all the time and has created its fair share of highly produced, lip-syncing pop stars like Ashlee Simpson and Britney Spears; but it’s an entertainment industry, not a government. And on top of that, it’s one thing to sing along to a pre-recorded track of your own voice; it’s quite another to try to pass someone else’s voice off as your own. Just ask Milli Vanilli or the skinny model “singing” in the C+C Music Factory video. At least these phony acts were old enough to understand what was going on. Let’s hope Yang and Lin fare better.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. What’s your take on the Olympic lip-syncing scandal?