BEIJING—Long after the closing ceremonies of last August's XXIX Olympiad, participants and spectators from around the world were still talking about the incredibly lifelike, almost realistic atmosphere the nation of China was able to bring to the Games.
"From the opening ceremonies, which initially seemed to fill the sky with fireworks and gravity-defying acrobats, to the competitions themselves, which at first seemed to bring the entire world together in a spirit of brotherhood and friendly competition, the Games had me completely convinced," said Juan Antonio Samaranch, former president of the International Olympic Committee, who claimed he often forgot that what he was seeing wasn't real while attending the events. "I, of all people, should know better, but I freely admit that the nation of China pulled off a magnificent illusion."
The Beijing Olympics were watched, and most likely believed, by literally billions all over the globe. In the United States alone, Olympic broadcast partner NBC reported that the Games were watched by more than 200 million people in 83 percent of American households, with 97 percent of those viewers able to suspend disbelief and swallow the whole thing completely.
"I was absolutely taken in with the whole Beijing spectacle—the gala ceremonies, the swimmers breaking world records, those women sword-fighting. It had everything," said Olympic viewer Rick Thomason of St. Paul, MN. "Even that Michael Phelps guy—you knew there was no way such a person could really exist, but you wanted him to succeed every bit as much as if his actions were happening in the real world."
"You have to hand it to the Chinese—they thought of everything," said Anne Jefferson of Los Angeles, who found her skepticism dissolving as she watched the Games with friends. "I was absolutely certain that I was watching the world's top amateur athletes going head-to-head for the sheer love of competition, even while I watched the men's basketball medal round. I have no idea how they did that, but I bought it hook, line, and sinker."
Chinese Olympic officials are not revealing the secret of exactly how they pulled off such a massive fabrication or how they maintained their Olympic ruse throughout most of August. Even broadcast professionals, no strangers to the suspension of disbelief, admit they sometimes forgot that what they were seeing wasn't real.
"There were times I got completely caught up in it, I must admit," said Bob Costas, who hosted NBC's frontline Olympics show for the duration of the Games. "It was a fantastic job, all things considered, when you realize what China was up against. Think about it—they had to make people believe that a 10-year-old gymnast was actually a young woman. They had to make people believe that a Jamaican man could work hard and run fast, which frankly isn't something the average American is prepared to think. And they had to make people like swimming for almost two weeks. I still don't know how it was achieved."
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised," said Tim Layden, track and field reporter for Sports Illustrated. "What China did with the Olympics was impressive, to be sure. But it was nothing compared to making the world believe that Beijing is actually a clean, safe modern city, or that China is actually a fully functioning modern society with a vibrant and healthy culture, or that the whole thing wasn't a thinly veiled show of jingoistic nationalism nearly on par with the infamous Berlin Games. If they managed to do that, then I'm really impressed."