Olympic officials insisted Wednesday the decision to have one girl lip-sync another's voice during a song featured in the Beijing Games' opening ceremony was not about who was cuter, but about achieving the best overall performance.
Organizers were put on the defensive after the musical director of last Friday's games curtain raiser revealed the last-minute switch — the latest embarrassment for officials who have gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the games are flawless.
In a sparkling red dress, 9-year-old Lin Miaoke soared on wires above the Bird's Nest national stadium and mouthed the words to "Ode to the Motherland" before 91,000 people attending the ceremony and an worldwide television audience estimated in the billions.
But the voice everybody heard was a prerecorded version of the song by 7-year-old Yang Peiyi, who officials decided sounded better than Li Miaoke but did not look as good.
Sun Weide, the spokesman for the Beijing organizing committee, said the decision to use both girls was made by the artistic director after consulting with broadcasters, who had recommended the change. He did not name the broadcasters.
"I think there were a number of candidates to sing that song and at the end of the day the artistic director picked the best voice and the best performer," Sun told reporters.
Senior International Olympic Committee member Gilbert Felli likened the decision to a sporting coach's choice to put a player on the bench so another could take the field, but suggested the decision should not have been kept secret.
"I think maybe on this one some people would believe that maybe it was not appropriate, but the others would have said it's fantastic because the performance was great," he said.
"You can have different opinions, but sport is exactly the same," he said. "If your son is playing on a football team, suddenly the coach may decide that he's not playing, he's going to stay on the bench.
"That's what it is in sport and in life."
Olympic officials faced a barrage of questions on Wednesday about the switch, and the families and other representatives of both girls said the two would not be available to speak to news media.
The issue was being widely debated on the Internet in China and on the streets of Beijing, where many people felt the two separate roles should not have been kept secret and that Peiyi should be included in the glitzy closing ceremony scheduled for Aug. 24.
"I don't agree with the decision because they are kids and it may scar them for life," said Li Lin, 41, a marketing worker in Beijing. "I think the girl with the voice should have a chance to perform at the closing ceremonies. It would be a great chance for her to redeem herself to the world."
More ire was directed at the organizers for not going public with the decision, rather than at Miaoke, whose performance was highly praised immediately after the opening ceremony.
Miaoke's father, Lin Hui, said both girls are cute but he agreed that Peiyi's voice was "a bit better" than his daughter's. He said the roles played by both girls was very important, but that organizers should have released the information.
"Letting everybody know is a must," he told The Associated Press on Wednesday.
The secret was revealed by Chen Qigang, the opening ceremony's chief musical director, in an interview with state-owned Beijing Radio. He said a senior Politburo member said Miaoke's voice was not good enough for the ceremony but that Peiyi did not look right.
Chen, a French national, later told AP Television News he felt compelled to "to come out with the truth." Peiyi was "a magnificent singer" who "doesn't deserve to be hidden," he said, before declining to comment further.
Photos of Peiyi on a blog by her tutor show a typically pretty girl in a white dress with a pink clip in her hair. She appears to be losing her milk teeth, and her two new front teeth are only partially grown, and angled slightly.
Chen's original interview was posted on Beijing Radio's Web site Sunday night. By Tuesday the link was shut down. The Chinese government routinely blocks sites that are politically sensitive or that could cause embarrassment to the country's communist rulers.
Lin declined to answer when asked if Peiyi should be included in the closing ceremony, except to say that he was not the director. He said his daughter was not doing any rehearsals and that he presumed she would not be involved in the closing ceremony.