by | Aug 14, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DAY 7: Gym wars and pigtails.

BEIJING – What did you expect? Any country that would lip-sync out a 7-year-old singer because she wasn’t cute enough for the opening ceremony wouldn’t hesitate to use underage children to capture gold medals. That’s a no-brainer. There is what you see and there is what really goes on in China, and what you see at these Games, the image they project, is as precious as oxygen to the New Emperor of the Planet. Who cares if a gymnast is so young she is, as one critic charged, “missing a tooth”?

“Deng …” a reporter, according to Reuters, asked a Chinese gymnast who looks small enough to pack in a suitcase, “what Chinese zodiac animal are you?”

“A monkey,” Deng responded.

Not only was it the correct chronological answer, it was dead on in the irony department. Every four years, female gymnasts become dueling national Tinker Bells. And while we ignore their sport in between, during the Olympics it’s as if our existence hangs in the balance.

China beat the U.S. for gold in the team competition, and it became a drama and a controversy. Tonight, they battle for the individual title of Olympic champion.

Brace yourself. It’s barefoot war out there. A question for the ages

America gasped when our blonde pixies slipped and stumbled. Alicia Sacramone, a 20-year-old from Boston (making her almost a grandma), fell off her balance beam mount and plopped on her rump during the floor exercise. Her teammates, at times, seemed wobbly.

Meanwhile, the Chinese girls, performing before a raucous home crowd, delivered mostly flawless performances and waved with wild exuberance before, presumably, being put down for their naps.

You must turn 16 in the Olympic year to compete in this sport. But honestly. This one girl? Deng Linlin? She’s 16 the way I’m 16. All the girls are tiny: She looks up to them. Previous registrations for events suggest several Chinese gymnasts may barely be 14 (even that is hard to believe), but all you need for the Games is a valid passport, and, surprise, the team has those. Who are you going to interrogate? The Chinese president?

Instead, Deng and her teammates were grilled by journalists with: “How did you spend your 15th birthday?””What are your memories of it?” All that was missing were the hot lights and the cops.

But they won. That’s what matters here. If you’re looking for outrage, remember that not long ago, with its One Child policy, little girls were in danger of being killed over here or, at the least, shipped out for adoption. Now, in service to the state, they are on a pedestal. It’s a win-or-else mentality

But then, China is not in this for the warm and fuzzies. They don’t make commercials here about the joy of trying even if you fail. There is an expression you see – I spotted it at a museum that featured the urban planning of Beijing – and it goes “Have no best, only better.”

Translation for the Olympics: Gold is the minimum. More gold after that.

It is the reason why, as of this writing, China had more gold medals than anyone, and more than three times as many golds as it had silver or bronze. America may have more total hardware, but second or third place is of little interest here. The Chinese planned for years to specialize in sports that yielded multiple medals and go for gold. East Germany did it. So did the Soviet Union.

Now the Chinese are getting their wish – no matter what the sacrifice – and we seem more upset over it than they are. When news broke that the darling of the opening ceremony, a cute-as-a-button, pig-tailed singer who performed “Ode to the Motherland” was actually lip-syncing, because the true singer, a 7-year-old girl, was judged by a high-ranking official as not pretty enough, the Western world was aghast. But not the hosts.

“We combined the perfect voice and the perfect performance,” Chen Qigang, the ceremony’s chief music director, told Beijing Radio. “The audience will understand that it’s in the national interest.”

It may sound cruel and robotic. But Luciano Pavarotti lip-synced his Olympic aria in Torino. And Bela Karolyi, the hysterical gymnastics analyst for NBC who blasts the Chinese for age abuse, was accused of similar things when he was the “enemy” coaching Romania, remember?

Tonight, if an American finishes second, we can say she gave her all. And if a Chinese girl wins gold, her government can say “as expected.” It’s a barefoot war out there, with young women crying and little girls on the firing line. You can forget sometimes, here in Beijing, that sports are supposed to be fun.

Aren’t they?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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