The Grand Illusion

When Dorothy and her three motley cinematic companions inadvertently stumbled upon the man behind the curtain in the magical Land of Oz, as most anyone in their places likely would have done, they reacted with confusion, indignation and disillusionment.

Similarly, when the world first learned that parts of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics had been faked, millions of people who witnessed the dazzling feast of sound, color, pyrotechnics, synchronicity and human drama may have shared a similar sense of betrayal and disenchantment.

Not to be outdone by two previous Olympic opening ceremonies, 2008 Beijing ceremony designers created giant, elaborate firework footprints that marched across Beijing towards the Olympic stadium. Though not long after the ceremony the world soon learned that these spectacular images were prerecorded, digitally enhanced and mixed into footage beamed across the planet.

Beijing Olympic committee officials justified the illusion by pointing out that it was necessary to replace live video with computer-generated 3-D imagery because the smoggy skies made it difficult to see. The special effects would also avoid them placing the helicopter pilot scheduled to shoot the pyrotechnics in obvious danger in attempting to film the event while flying through hazy skies.

In breath-taking fashion and accompanied by a thunderous cast of 2008 Fou drummers beating down upon traditional drums with glow-in-the-dark sticks – the big red machine also paraded and flashed before the world captivating vignettes of four of its colossal contributions to humanity – gun powder, paper, movable type and the compass.

Then from a tender moment that could just as easily have originated from a syrupy scene of an animated Disney movie were it not transpiring at the center of the communist world, an adorable little Chinese girl with pigtails sang and melted the collective hearts of the multitudes watching via television and those lucky enough to have a spot in the remarkable venue dubbed the ‘Beijing bird nest’.

Or at least the global audience believed the sweet 9 year-old school girl in the red dress was the one actually crooning the entrance song ushering in 56 children representing the expansive diversity of the People’s Republic. Once Chinese officials openly admitted to deceiving the public and that the actual singing voice was that of another Chinese girl, Yang Peiyi, the proverbial Siamese cat had escaped the bag.

Apparently, a member of the dominant Chinese politburo watching a rehearsal of the opening ceremony determined that though Yang Peiyi’s voice may be perfect, because of her protruding teeth, she did not fit the physical image of beauty the Chinese wanted to portray to the world; hence the picture perfect stand-in.

Another influential political figure to internalize the power of the image was Joseph Patrick Kennedy, the late patriarch of the affluent Kennedy clan from Massachusetts. Kennedy was quoted as saying that “It’s not what you are that counts, but what people think you are”. One of his famous sons, the late president John F. Kennedy was a primary example of this dictum.

A sickly child who nearly lost his life to Addison’s disease in 1947, Kennedy during his brief time in office was often injected with steroids to help alleviate severe spastic colitis and a debilitating back problem for which he wore a brace. While in office his physical ailments and martial infidelity were largely hidden from public scrutiny. His image was controlled and captured by a personal filmmaker and more compliant press, not nearly as insatiable as are today’s journalists in exposing and magnifying the foibles of celebrities and politicians for all to see.

Yet during the 1960’s an oblivious public was more than content to feed upon the constructed reality of a pseudo-royal court where president and first lady became king and queen of a mythical American Camelot. Images of JFK combined to paint a portrait of a strong leader whose daring dreams, physical vitality and family values were shaped during bold speeches to the nation, backyard family football games and tender moments with Jackie, Caroline and John Jr.

The glittering ideals of the Olympic Games on the world stage or lofty dreams of political leaders of nations are still viewed best through the unfiltered lens of the critical human mind and heart. Ironically, it was not until the fictional, self-proclaimed great and powerful Wizard of Oz was finally exposed for what he truly was that the quest for a brain, a heart, courage and home could finally be realized.

Photo courtesy: GETTY/AFP


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