While the Olympic Games always provide fodder for people who see everything in terms of politics, I'd like to register a complaint on the cultural front regarding NBC's treatment of the icons China created for the Beijing Olympics.
You've seen the main symbol for months, now: it appears to be a stylized person, practically a stick figure, on a red field shaped like a rounded and very uneven rectangle. The symbols for particular events have been modeled on the same basic, off-kilter design.
What bugs me is that NBC took these icons, centered the stick-figure images, and turned the uneven red background into little round buttons. Scandaleux.
While I can't know what was going through the minds of the graphic design crew at NBC, I feel safe in guessing that they didn't understand the significance of the original Chinese design, which would have been obvious to even the most casual student of East Asian culture:
It's a chop, guys.
Many cultures have methods for indicating something's authenticity. Koreans, borrowing from the Chinese tradition, employ dojang (stamps, chops) for a number of purposes, all related to authentication. One's dojang is, even today, as important as signatures are in the West (but we should remember that the West has its own tradition of seals, as does the Middle East).* A Korean might, for example, be asked to use his stamp when receiving a new bank book. He might also use it on contracts and court documents. East Asian artists use several types of dojang on their works as a way of signing their names to their art.** Quite often when you look at a piece of brush art, you'll see two (sometimes more, sometimes fewer) square or squarish stamps occupying the lower left-hand side of the page, and a single stamp-- often of amorphous shape-- on the work's upper right-hand side. This stamp is sometimes made by taking an irregularly shaped stone, slicing it in half like a potato, polishing the exposed cross section, and carving words or images into that surface. The other stamps tend to be regular polygons, usually squares. All the stamps are patted against a special red paste (or in the modern Korean office, a red inkpad) and then pressed against the document or artwork.
This is what you see when you look at the 2008 Beijing Olympics logo: a dojang on which the character jing (from "Bei-jing"; pronounced "gyeong" in Korean and "kyo" in Japanese) has been rendered as a dancer.***
By now, I hope you can see why NBC's artistic choice grates on me. They basically took an image that has great cultural significance to literally billions of people, and ground it down to something smooth and lifeless. I can only assume this was an act of ignorance, not cultural imperialism. No matter the cause, the effect is jarring, and I'm unhappy every time I see the NBC versions of those icons.
Of course, I don't know how they're treating those symbols on Chinese TV. If the Chinese are also turning the original design into cute, soulless little red buttons for their Olympic news broadcasts, then shame on them, too.
*I don't know enough about the history of seals to know whether the Western tradition directly derives from the Middle Eastern, but the ancient scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions all make reference to seals, and might have had some influence on the Western mind. Does anyone know whether Western seals are derived from Middle Eastern sources?
**Some Westerners scoff at dojang on the assumption that they're easy to forge, but I'd put the level of difficulty on a par with forging a signature. In fact, forging a signature might actually be easier: all the forger needs is time to practice, while the forger of a stamp needs to obtain materials to make an actual stamp. Once made, the fake stamp might not possess quite the same minute flaws as the original, so detection of the forgery is still possible even if the copy is painstakingly faithful to the original in its dimensions and proportions.
***All glory, laud, and honor to Wikipedia for noting the jing reference.