Banned from the Olympics

The so-called blood-in-the-pool match was the kind of drama that's become the hallmark of televised sporting events. And yet, that same year, the head of the Olympics told the world that TV would be the ruin of the Games.

The Olympics return to Australia this year and Olympics organisers again are casting a suspicious eye on a new broadcast medium: the Internet. The Games' organisers - primarily the tradition-bound International Olympic Committee - and its broadcast partners have basically shut the Net out of the Games. There will be no radio play-by-play. No taped video highlights of the competition, except for a very limited number of broadband users. And certainly no live video. Worse yet, dot-com journalists won't receive a single media credential to cover the Games. It's the third straight Olympics that major sites, even ESPN.com and SportsLine have been barred from.

Money and tradition, more than anything else, explain why you'll have to turn to the boob tube for your Olympic thrills. The Olympics may still be called the "People's Games," but over the years the IOC, one of the oldest and most powerful bureaucracies in all of sports, has turned the amateur sporting event into a multibillion-dollar business. The IOC has built up the Olympics by cutting deals with corporate sponsors and media titans, who, in exchange for writing the biggest checks, get full and nearly exclusive access to the Games and the Olympic trademarks.

The Olympic organisers strenuously defend the deals that keep the Net far from the action. The IOC sells the broadcast rights for billions of dollars to finance the Games and support the various sports governing bodies that select the athletes and judges. As the exclusive U.S. TV broadcaster, NBC can recoup the costs - and make a sizable profit - selling ad time to major sponsors like Coca-Cola . "We've given out a general comfort statement to the [TV] broadcasters saying you're the ones who brought us to the dance, so we'll do everything we can to protect those rights," says Richard Pound, an IOC VP who chairs the organisation's Internet plans.

Dot-coms can't afford to compete for those rights, but Netizens don't always play by the rules, particularly when the rules benefit corporate titans. Thanks to new enhancements in technology, piracy issues loom larger for the Sydney Olympics then ever before. Suddenly, mobile phones and digital cameras mean that every fan entering the 110,000-seat Olympic Stadium is a potential pirate broadcaster. Just as MP3 and Napster are turning the music industry on its head, Olympic pirates may provide the opening wedge that eventually pries open the events to Internet coverage.

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Bernhard Warner

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