BEIJING (Reuters) - For 16-year-old Li Miaomiao, sore feet from wearing high heels for hours at a time and an achy jaw from constant smiling are worth the chance of hanging a medal around an athlete’s neck come the Beijing Olympics.
The willow-thin high school student is one of 34 Chinese girls “training” to be an Olympic medal presenter at the Beijing Foreign Affairs School (BFAS), one of several state-run colleges charged with producing camera-friendly girls for awards ceremonies.
When not balancing books on her head to improve posture during medal presentation rehearsal sessions, Li and her class-mates study English, cultural training and look at pictures of past medal presenters and their uniforms.
Most important for Li, though, is the smile.
“I practice at home, and smile to the mirror for an hour every day,” Li said, beaming radiantly in a red waistcoat and high heels on the sidelines of a class.
“I want to present my smile to the world, and let them know that the Chinese smile is the warmest.”
Beijing has earmarked about $40 billion to put on its best face for the Games, with Olympic venues accounting for only a small percentage.
Along with big-ticket items like subways and roads, Beijing has spent billions more on a beautification campaign that has seen whole neighborhoods razed and thousands of residents displaced.
But even as the paint dries on Olympic venues completed months ahead of schedule, officials remain concerned that Beijingers’ manners may spoil the party.
The fears have triggered a massive public relations campaign to eradicate rougher Chinese habits like spitting, and have mobilized hundreds of “civilization” volunteers to teach people to queue when boarding buses and subway carriages.
“Building the software for the Olympics is much harder than building the hardware,” said BFAS director Li Zhiqi.
“Personal qualities and mentality are firmly ingrained and therefore hard to change.”
Li says her school, which will also produce staff to wait on International Olympic Committee officials at their hotel, is doing its bit to mould well-mannered, natural communicators to deal with foreign guests.
“This is a huge opportunity for them. The Olympics will put them in front of the world’s audience and lead to a life-time of fortune,” Li said.
That is, if they make the grade.
Not unlike the more than 800,000 Chinese who have applied for only 100,000 Olympic volunteer positions on offer, the competition to become one of the coveted 380-odd medal presenters is cut-throat.
The 34 hopefuls at BFAS are up against specialist dance schools, universities and possibly winners of regional contests across the country, Li said.
Applicants are also up against biological constraints.
“Girls must be at least 1.63 meters tall ... There are no real weight restrictions but they mustn’t be too heavy,” Li said, citing selection criteria from the Cultural Activities Department of Beijing’s Organizing Committee for the Games.
While Zhao Dongming, the department’s director, said the guidelines were so applicants could “fit into the uniforms being provided,” rights groups have cried discrimination.
“In planning the Olympics, officials at the highest levels of government should publicly condemn discrimination rather than reinforce harmful stereotypes and unfair hiring practices,” Brad Adams, Asia Executive Director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Further exacting standards are demanded from BFAS’s students, some of whom attended an intensive summer training camp in Beijing’s northern outskirts, sleeping in dormitories and rising early to take classes in etiquette and deportment.
Apart from common-sense communication tips, such as looking directly at someone while talking to them, students are also informed the perfect smile consists of “only showing the eight top teeth,” according to 17-year-old student Li Bogeng, who wants to make cocktails for IOC officials.
For Li Miaomiao, who stands at 1.73 meters and unblinkingly rattles off her vital statistics when asked, the perfect smile comes naturally — after having practiced for hours in the mirror.
It no doubt helped Li become one of only seven girls chosen from dozens of applicants to present medals to winning boxers at an Olympic test event in Beijing last November.
“I have an air of elegance now, and my bearing has changed through this training program,” she said.
Being 16, Li is technically ineligible from becoming an Olympic presenter, where guidelines call for 18-25 year-old university students. But she rates herself a contender, anyway.
“I’m very confident. I think I have an 80 percent chance,” she said, flashing a winning smile.