It was not entirely clear what prompted the powers that be in the workers’ stadium to tinker with their crowd-control buttons just before half-time as Brazil played Nigeria in a women’s football group-stage match on Tuesday.
Perhaps it was a belated show of appreciation for the stunning scissor kicks that earned Brazil’s Christiane her second goal of the game or maybe it was a sign of concern that the match was slipping into a rare lull.
Whatever the reason, a cute Olympic mascot appeared on the giant screens at each end of the ground and texted forth the most loathed words of all cynical sports hacks: ”Let’s do a Mexican Wave!”
Within seconds team leaders among the blocks of yellow-clad cheerleaders in the crowd went into action. Minutes later the stadium was roaring.
Choreographed spontaneity does not come much more impressive than this.
”I am not interested in football. Hardly any of us are,” says Cindy Yang, one of several thousand cheerleaders bussed in to fill empty seats.
”I want to help the Olympics. It is just a small thing but I want to make a contribution.”
Cindy is wearing a bright yellow ”Cheering by Beijing Workers” T-shirt and is armed with two inflatable clappers. A political studies tutor, the 25-year-old is one of 400 people recruited from the Beijing College of Industry and Technology. Tens of thousands of others were picked up elsewhere. Since April they have been training three times a week to learn four series of cheers.
Given that Cindy is on a double header (with Canada v Sweden to follow), she deserves a medal for her labours. More likely is criticism from the West that she is another fake element in a staged and superficial Olympics.
We saw that response during the torch relay, when it turned out that many — if not all — of the millions of jubilant supporters who lined the route in China had been carefully vetted by the authorities. We also saw such criticism in coverage of the training regime for Chinese athletes, many of whom were picked at a young age for sports they had never heard of.
We saw it too in the grumbles about the opening ceremony, when one of the most spectacular sections – the footsteps of fire — turned out to be computer-generated and the cute little girl singing a solo proved to have been lip-synching after the tot with the real voice was bumped because of her unattractive teeth.
Such criticism may be dismissed as sour grapes, because few countries will ever match the opulence and scale of Beijing. But it is about more than that. It is a whole different way of looking at reality.
If you believe truth is individual, chaotic and spontaneous — as I do — then these Games are horribly staged. However, if you think reality can be collective, orderly and plannable — a view 12 years in Asia occasionally makes me sympathise with — then they are a work of extraordinary genius and endeavour.
Portraying this as a difference between East and West is too simplistic.
On Chinese websites I have seen the opening ceremony criticised as overly stylistic and lacking in content. In private conversation I have heard it described as ”fascist” and ”shameful”. However, talk as a foreign journalist to a Chinese citizen and my experience (on an admittedly small sample) is that people will laud it to the skies and express immense pride in their nation.
The Chinese public appear genuinely enthusiastic about these Games.
Cheerleaders are not needed at most events. The government is, of course, not the only host of a major event to try to manipulate crowds and generate atmosphere for the sponsors. Nor is it alone in being painfully face-conscious and worried about security. But still, so far, there is a huge difference in the way the public have been allowed to respond compared with other countries.
In 2002 I was in Japan for the World Cup, when the public went blissfully, temporarily wild. Passions seemed even more inflamed in South Korea.
That moment may yet come here but so far this down-to-earth, fun-filled city seems like another place. Wonderful as it is to have less traffic and cleaner air, the streets have been almost eerie. Most people appear to have been watching at home. In the centre of Beijing on Friday the crowds (mostly visitors from the provinces) were kept off Tiananmen Square for ”safety reasons” and most of the big screens were switched off.
So the collectivist ideal lives on with cheerleaders like Cindy Yang. ”We only used one of our moves today,” she says. ”That’s because we were not completely enthusiastic about these two teams.” —