The Biggest Lie in the Olympic Games

LOS ANGELES, May 14, 2008 – The massing of news media from around the country or around the world at events like political conventions, space shots and sporting events like the Olympic Games is always cause for wonder.

Pictures of forests of cameras on tripods or press conference rooms full of hundreds of journalists underscore the importance of such events and in the case of the 2008 Games, helps to explain why China was chosen as host.

One of the rationales given by the International Olympic Committee for selecting China to stage the 2008 Games is the close scrutiny that will be given to the host country by the thousands of journalists who will attend the Games. The number is often given as up to 20,000 news media who will attend the Games in Beijing.

This is a misrepresentation of epic proportions.

I was privileged to serve as the Vice President responsible for press operations for the 1984 Olympic Games and saw first-hand what these numbers really mean.

Let’s take Athens 2004 for example. In the Official Report of the Games, it says that about 21,000 news media were accredited. That’s a lot. But looking deeper into the text to find out how that number was arrived at, we find three groups which make up the actual number of “media” who “covered” the Games.

Most obvious are the written press. The 2004 report shows that 5,231 writing press were accredited, but that number includes 1,349 photographers, 273 specialist writers who covered only one sport and 344 who were technical staff for the Main Press Center only. That leaves a much lower number of 2,999 accredited journalists and 266 media from non-rights-holding television networks such as ESPN.

The situation with the broadcasters is even more misleading. A total of 15,578 broadcast media were accredited, but very few of these were reporters. Most were technicians.

The host broadcasting operation, which included no journalists and solely technical staff to assist the rights-holding broadcasters (like NBC) numbered 4,285 and produced the basic television coverage of the Games used by all broadcasters.

Then the individual organizations who purchased rights to the Games, like NBC, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the Japan Olympic Pool and others, all had staff in Athens, totaling a stunning 11,293 people. The EBU accredited 4,620 (41%) and NBC had 3,069 (27%) accreditees, but no other organization had more than 876.

And almost all of these folks were technical in nature, creating the many studio-based shows, producing added coverage from the various sports venues and the Olympic Village and coordinating airtime with their colleagues back home. Perhaps 15% of the broadcast staff – about 1,700 – could be classified as reporting staff and the vast majority of those were tied to the sports venues and the Main Press Center.

That means that of the 20,809 accredited media in Athens, only about 4,700 – or 22.6% – could be classified as reporters of any kind. Of that total, my best estimate is that barely 500 actually did anything more than run from venue to venue to cover the sports competitions.

That’s 500 – or less – enterprise reporters out of 20,809 accredited media to cover what’s going on off the fields of play. Not a lot at all. And this is the group which, later this summer, is going to put China to the test in terms of its promises on press freedom, human rights and so on?

However, there is another set of media which will come to China during the summer to cover things other than sports. And the Chinese government and the city of Beijing will be ready for them, too, with a “Beijing International Media Centre” to offer information, press conferences and filing facilities for media who are not accredited (and in many cases don’t want to be) by the Olympic organizers. But even this help center has accreditation rules and applications are due in by May 20.

It will be the journalists who work in this center and many others who will simply be in China – unaccredited – during the Games period who will do the hard reporting that readers in Western countries will be expecting about what China is about, what its people think about the government and the Olympic Games and how close to the truth the Chinese government’s pronouncements are. If you think about it, having a badge of some kind is likely to scare people off, don’t you think? Maybe it’s better just to show up . . . if the Chinese government will let you.

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