August 11, 2008

And the 100m Freestyle Winner Izzzzz …

By Nick Harris


Television has for years dictated the scheduling of many sports. The entire Premiership season is planned for the pay-TV masters at Sky and Setanta. If Andy Murray is playing tennis at Wimbledon, you'll usually find his matches arranged to coincide with a tea- time audience for the BBC. Yet what's happened here in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics takes meddling to a new level.

The schedule for swimming has been turned on its head for American TV. The NBC network has paid $3.55bn (1.84bn) for exclusive American media rights, and a condition of doing so was that all swimming finals be staged in the mornings in China, for prime-time evening viewing in the US. The American swimmer Michael Phelps is expected to be the most prolific medal winner of these Games.

Until now, every major swimming championship in history has staged heats in the mornings and finals in the evening. Now the entire working approach of swimmers worldwide has had to be altered for NBC.

Criticism has been widespread but pointless. Dollars talk.

British swimmers are among those who have even been sleeping under special "acclimatisation" lights at night to help them to wake more refreshed than usual for an early-day peak in their performance.

More pertinently for the armchair viewer in Britain, if the finals had not been moved, they would have been on TV from around midday. As it is, you'll need to be up at 3am to tune in to anything significant in the pool.

REPORTS OF luxurious working conditions for journalists at the Games have been somewhat exaggerated. There's no such thing as free Wi-Fi, whereas in many sporting arenas these days that is a staple. The internet connections that do exist are slow. Numerous websites are still blocked for censoring purposes, including the BBC for long spells, and The Independent's own Olympic blog. Bus drivers ferrying the media around often get lost. One charabanc hilariously went the wrong way up a major one-way thoroughfare the other day, forcing an American TV technician passenger to jump out and stop the traffic while the driver did a 36-point turn.

And the security measures, which delay movement everywhere, are not actually very effective. Two busloads of reporters and photographers arrived more than three hours early for the first football match of the Games in nearby Tianjin last week to be met by dozens of police, security staff, sniffer dogs and a scanner that checked the bus itself. The whole process took 90 minutes but the security ended up failing to search or scan the actual bags of most of the journalists. The power to the scanners had gone down.

At least journalists can eat like top-class athletes here, at, errm, McDonald's. The fast-food chain is a "proud food partner" of the Games and the "freebie bag" for journalists includes daily coupons for free burgers, fries and sugary drinks. To be fair to McD's, its outlet at the main press centre is as busy as any other food provider and provides 10-page leaflets that boast about "feeding the world's best athletes" and about McDonald's "high quality and delicious food". As the 2008 Games slogan says, "One World, One Dream".

THE 'TELEGRAPH' may be slashing sports staff faster than British boxing hopes are going down the pan but it still has one of the largest contingents here: 20 people. Yet Britain's biggest selling daily, The Sun, despite being owned by a man with a Chinese wife and an obsessive interest in all things Chinese, can muster only three sports writers and one news reporter. The Premier League season is about to get underway again and the god of football remains far more important to the Currant Bun.

NEVER LET it be said that journalistic chivalry is dead. A swimming coach (for the record, nothing to do with Britain) was overheard on a plane here last week talking about the abhorrent culture of laziness in the nation in which he works. "That's why my lot are so crap at swimming," he opined. "I'm resigning after these Games. Swimming's rotten anyway. If you're not on drugs you've got no chance." It was at this point that he asked his neighbour in the next seat what he did for a living. "Sports writer," came the reply. "Oh shit," said the coach. "Can we agree everything I've just said is off the record?" Luckily for him, the writer said he'd keep schtum.

A LOT OF journalists, including The Independent's team here, are staying in the North Star Media Village, which is basically 24 tower blocks of flats on a campus of shops and eateries (but no bar). Others are billeted in some of Beijing's more wackily-named hotels, including the aptly named Foreign Experts Building, which claims to be the nearest hotel to the Olympic Stadium.

Among the great and good lodged there are staff from The Sun, The Guardian, America's Sports Illustrated magazine, and Sky Sports News (the latter raided by police on their first night because their TV camera equipment was so bulky it raised suspicions).

The apartments in the "FEB" comprise a bedroom, a kitchenette, a lounge, and a top-loading washing machine in the hall. "Very Life on Mars," one of Fleet Street's most eminent writers tells us. "Brown carpet, Seventies-style three-piece suite in man-made satin, and a display cabinet for the telly that doubles as your wardrobe."

The bathrooms come equipped with a single complimentary condom. "It was in a pink wrapper and very small," one writer (female) explains.

"It was very small. I asked the cleaners to take it away."

(c) 2008 Independent, The; London (UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.