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Two thoughts that can rattle around in one’s head simultaneously: The 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics featured the grandest and most ambitious opening ceremony in modern memory, an astonishing achievement for filmmaker Zhang Yimou. They were also an unsettling display of Chinese nationalism and high-tech propaganda.
Two more thoughts that can rattle around in one’s head after Friday (Feb. 4) morning’s opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics: Without quite equaling that 2008 launch — the reduced attendance and scale were COVID necessities — Zhang Yimou’s second go-round as opening ceremonies orchestrator easily made for the best showing since then, a display of grandeur that put what Tokyo mounted last year to shame. The proceedings were also an unsettling display of Chinese nationalism and high-tech propaganda, this time featuring straight-up genocide denial broadcast around the globe.
Any Olympic opening ceremony is going to be propaganda for the host country. It was true in Tokyo, as organizers offered limp spectacle as a distraction from outside protesters wondering if the Games should be taking place at all. And it will be true in 2028, when the United States brings the torch to Los Angeles. I’d posit, though, that the mixture of awe generated by mammoth LED screens and snazzy lasers and disgust at the particular charges being obscured in Beijing felt outside-of-the-norm, while NBC’s very matter-of-fact coverage all too closely resembled the norm.
The thing that has to be acknowledged is that NBC did not ignore the diplomatic boycott by the U.S. and other Western nations or its reasons. Allegations of China’s human rights abuses and genocide of the Uyghur people and other ethnic and religious minorities in the northwest region of Xinjiang were raised by host Mike Tirico in the preshow before the opening, and they came up again a few times during the opening ceremony itself. The question, though, of whether the Uyghur crisis deserved to be focus or footnote will be up to every viewer to answer individually, but NBC definitely went the “footnote” route.
Nowhere was that better illustrated than at the traditional climax, the lighting of the cauldron, which in this case was at the center of one giant snowflake made of smaller snowflakes festooned with the names of participating countries. One of the two athletes selected for the final torch honor was Dinigeer Yilamujiang. Like many casual winter sports viewers, I wouldn’t have known that Dinigeer Yilamujiang was a cross-country skier. And I surely wouldn’t have known that Dinigeer Yilamujiang had Uyghur heritage without NBC telling me and making it clear that the choice could only be seen as China thumbing its nose at accusations of abuses against the Uyghurs — one of several times the ceremony glorified China’s relationship with ethnic diversity.
It’s here where there’s a line. Offering no explanation leaves the audience entirely ignorant. That’s bad. Offering superficial explanation, though, becomes tantamount to parroting the agenda of the Chinese regime. The choices, then, are: Say nothing; say the bare minimum to keep your audience somewhat informed (NBC’s approach); or educate your audience. With an opportunity to say, “Here’s what China is saying with this, but here are the facts as we know them regarding the situation in Xinjiang,” NBC effectively both-sides-ed a piece of genocide denial, which really should never be anybody’s goal. I’m sure NBC will go into more depth at some point in the next two weeks, but I happen to be of the opinion that the time and place for debunking denial of human rights violations is “any time.”
The NBC opening ceremony telecast generally struggled to progress beyond the informatively trivial. That definitely doesn’t bother me when it comes to explaining how the lone Olympian from Haiti came to be a downhill skier (Richardson Viano, who was adopted by an Italian family) or pointing out Israel’s first Orthodox female winter Olympian (Hailey Kops). But it feels ickier in this context, where NBC seemed to determine its responsibility to be acknowledging and interpreting China’s intentions without much fact-checking.
Along those lines, NBC didn’t hesitate to acknowledge simmering tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and we got to see Vladimir Putin, in attendance next to China’s President Xi, cheering enthusiastically for the Russian delegation after nearly feigning sleep when the Ukrainian athletes marched out. Even that was presented more in the context of, “President Xi will be really annoyed if Putin invades Ukraine in the next two weeks and upstages his promotional opportunity to show the world that China enjoys winter sports, too” rather than, “Here’s something that may push the world to the brink of catastrophic war.” But hey, did you know that Finland has been voted the world’s happiest country four years in a row? I bet their televised coverage has no global analysis at all!
And if you didn’t know what was happening beneath the surface (and sometimes very much above the surface) of the thing you were watching, you’d be happy, too, because it was freaking gorgeous.
In his films and in his Olympics ceremonies, Zhang Yimou delivers scale at an outrageously high level. The LED screen that stretched the length of Beijing’s so-called Bird’s Nest stadium was used to astonishing effect, blending the virtual and real to the point that I often couldn’t tell what was truly happening. The giant block of ice that melted away to form the Olympic Rings was all computer-generated, right? But then there was the part where the snowflake-holders — Chinese volunteers marching in front of the delegations with those snowflakes bearing each country’s name — mobilized on the stadium floor in a very real circle, then scurried away and were replaced by virtual orbs of light that then formed other shapes and it was like, “Whoa! Oh right. Human rights violations.”
The best blending of real and virtual was the synchronized roller-bladers skating their way over the LED screen, displacing virtual snow as they went. The surface then became a massive LED globe and, like the introductory 24-element documentary countdown celebrating the confluence of the Olympics and the start of the lunar calendar, my OLED TV was getting its finest workout in months. If anything, I was frustrated that during the march of nations the NBC telecast director didn’t use more wide shots, because there were crazy things happening on that LED screen the whole time and I get the impression we barely glimpsed the tip of the virtual iceberg.
Then, of course, it wouldn’t be an Olympics opening without pandering performances by aggressively smiling children. In this case, you had Chinese kids dressed as snowflakes and singing about snowflakes and dancing with snowflakes as well as glowing white doves, which to me resembled the iconic Twitter mascot, which only served to remind me that Twitter is formally outlawed in China.
And what does it say that amid all this pomp and circumstance, that’s what I was fixating on?
Well, I guess that makes me a snowflake, too.
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