Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Countdown to the Beijing Olympics – Let the Game(s) begin

A year from today the world will be watching when the People’s Republic of China opens their doors to the world when Beijing serves as the host for the 2008 Summer Olympics. On ever level the next twelve months promise to offer an orgy of Beijing Olympic related coverage. Will the Chinese be ready? Easiest question to answer, there is no budget for the Beijing Games. Say what you want about costs for the 2012 London Games approaching $20 billion or the more than $12 billion spent on the 2004 Athens Games. You’ll be able to combine the outrageous totals for those two games, toss in the estimated $8 billion spent on the 2006 Turin Winter Games and you still won’t be able to top the more than $40 billion The People’s Republic of China have spent and are ready to spend on the 2008 Games.

If economists are looking for a budget for the 2008 Games they can forget about conducting a search – there is no budget, it’s spend until everything is perfect at least in the eyes of the communist led government. These Olympic Games be very much about politics, with the very real possibility they will be the most politically charged Olympic Games since Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games.

And if the Chinese aren’t expecting the world to be watching they’re in for a very big surprise. When the International Olympic Committee awarded the 2008 Games to Beijing in Juan Antonio Samaranch’s last and possibly most defining moment of his IOC presidency Four years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre where the Chinese military slaughtered between 3,000 and 5,000 unarmed student protestors Beijing failed in its bid for the 2000 Olympics (those Games where awarded to Sydney). Eight years later with Samaranch’s guidance Beijing where awarded the 2008 Games. When Beijing was awarded the Games the communist government made many promises – many of them related to human rights abuses the government had been accused of.

A report released Monday by Amnesty International suggests with a year to go the local and national government have a long way to go to meet the promises they made to the IOC six years ago.

According to the published report: Amnesty International's latest report finds that several Beijing-based activists continue to face 'house arrest' and tight police surveillance, while those in other parts of China are facing increased abuse. Award-winning housing rights activist Chen Xiaoming died in Shanghai on 1 July, shortly after his release from prison, where reports indicate he was tortured in detention.

There is also an ongoing crackdown on the media; with continued imprisonment of journalists and writers, forced dismissal of media staff, publication closures and pervasive internet censorship.

"Unless the Chinese authorities take urgent measures to stop human rights violations over the coming year, they risk tarnishing the image of China and the legacy of the Beijing Olympics," says AI Secretary General, Irene Khan.

"Not only are we not seeing delivery on the promises made that the Olympics would help improve the human rights situation in China, but the police are using the pretext of the Olympics to extend the use of detention without trial. This is despite the fact that substantial reform or abolition of such methods has been on China's reform agenda for many years."

This increased use of detentions is part of plans to "clean up" Beijing ahead of the Games. The plans include "Re-education through Labour" for petty crimes and extensions of periods of "Enforced Drug Rehabilitation". Despite some positive reforms likely to reduce thee use of the death penalty, China remains the world's top executioner with an estimated 8,000 people killed in 2006.

Irene Khan says: "The application of the death penalty in China remains shrouded in secrecy. Full transparency is essential to help prevent miscarriages of justice and provide the Chinese public with sufficient information to reach informed conclusions on the death penalty. Nothing short of publishing full national statistics on the application of the death penalty will suffice."

These ongoing human rights violations go against the core principles of the Olympic Charter, such as "the preservation of human dignity" and "respect for universal fundamental ethical principles." AI has sent a copy of its latest update to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

"The IOC must promote a positive legacy of the Olympics built on respect for human rights," says Irene Khan. "The Chinese authorities must press ahead with their promises to improve human rights so that when August 2008 arrives the Chinese people can be proud in every respect of what their country has to offer the world."

That aside the awarding of the 2008 Olympic Games never had anything to do about improving human rights or making China a more open society. There is only one way for that to take place and unfortunately as history has shown moving a society from socialism to democracy doesn’t happen with “promises of good intentions”.

The 2008 Olympic Games are all about (at least from the IOC’s perspective) offering Olympic sponsors a gateway into China a country, with a quarter of the world’s population that had closed its doors to corporations for decades. Yes, the 2008 Olympic Games are all about the mighty dollar (the American one no less).

The Masters of the Rings made their momentous decision six years ago awarding the Games to Beijing – it represented in July 2001 what it does today, what it will in two years, the single greatest marketing opportunity the IOC will ever offer its major sponsors. 1.3 billion consumers have corporations salivating at the chance.

According to a 2006 Wall Street Journal report, thirty-six companies have reached marketing agreements with the Beijing Organizing Committee, or Bocog. BOCOG isn’t quite done yet, the organizers are still actively soliciting suppliers. It’s expected according to the most current estimates the Beijing Organizing Committee will generate close to $1.5 billion in sponsorship and marketing dollars by the time the Games begin. That’s three times what the Athens Games generated and twice the total the 2000 Sydney Games ended up raising.

And the money games only begin with sponsorship fees. Volkswagen China Group is paying more then $100 million for local sponsorship rights, an astounding sponsorship fee by any standard.

Anthony Laver, Volkswagen China Group director of Olympic marketing told the WSJ he believes that in the 12 months before the Games, official sponsors will spend up to $2 billion on advertising.

A vanguard of the Olympic marketing program (TOP) established shortly after the financially successful 1984 Los Angeles Games (those Games had an estimated surplus in excess of $225 million) was to have fewer Olympic sponsors, but allow sponsors to enjoy exclusivity in their industry sector.

The 2008 Games are already home to three official beers: Tsingtao, Yanjing and Budweiser. The decision was rare, and required special permission from the International Olympic Committee.

"One beer cannot cover all China," says Liu Jun, Bocog's deputy director of marketing. Each of the beer companies established a different target audience, Mr. Liu says.

"Our point of view is this is the first time that China will conduct the Olympics," says a Tsingtao Brewery Co. representative. "We believe it is a great thing that many Chinese brands and businesses are able to participate."

Record sponsorship totals and obscene spending aside, the international advocacy group “Reporters without borders” doesn’t believe the Chinese are going to change when it comes to respecting, let alone understanding the concept of freedom of speech and freedom for the media to report what they see.

A report released last year by the group from made it abundantly clear, China politically remains a communist country, where freedom remains a question mark.

Reporters Without Borders were (and certainly still are) outraged that, a year before the start of the Beijing Games, the Chinese authorities continue a crackdown on the press with virtually nothing being said by the IOC or the national Olympic committees. Nothing seems capable of eliciting a reaction from the Olympic bodies, not even restrictions on the foreign press.

"This silence allows the Chinese government to shamelessly continue its massive human rights violations," Reporters Without Borders said. "Already marred by corruption, the preparation of the games has been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, which officials say is necessary to make sure they are safe." The press freedom organization also fears that all the surveillance and crowd-control equipment that China has bought from US, Israeli and French companies to ensure security at the games, will afterwards be used for repression.

Freedom of the press, a cornerstone of the American Constitution, won’t get in the way for companies focused on reaching the Chinese market. Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive of marketing heavyweight WPP Group PLC, told the WSJ he believes China could be the world's second-largest advertising market. Sir Martin has said it is "difficult to think of any sporting or cultural event in the world that could be bigger."

If Chinese are prepared to set their own set of rules with the media, you better believe they’ll manipulate the Olympics marketing policies to suit their needs. Speaking at the World Broadcasters meeting in Beijing BOCOG President Liu Qi did his best to alleviate concerns the media may have about covering the 2008 Olympics.

"Based on the promise made by the Chinese government in the bid process and taking into full consideration the international practices of the Olympic Games, this regulation is intended to provide convenience to foreign journalists for their coverage of the Games in China," Liu said.

"Foreign journalists holding Olympic identity and accreditation cards will be entitled to visa exemption within the validity of the card, and with the Olympic identity and accreditation cards and valid passports or other travel documents, make multi-entries into the People's Republic of China."

"The visa application procedures for [other] foreign journalists will also be simplified," he said.

When it comes to the actions of the Chinese governments, actions speak much louder then do the words of an easily replaceable bureaucrat. If Qi's "promise" embarrasses the IOC, they will only have themselves to blame for awarding the Games to China in the first place.

The media will be front and center when the Games begin a year from today – the parade led by NBC. After paying $613 million for the right to broadcast the Turing Games, NBC agreed to pay nearly $900 million for the Beijing Games. Tuesday, the network announced their plans to offer more than 3,600 hours of coverage on every imaginable media platform.

''It's everybody's dream to capitalize on such an extraordinary opportunity in Beijing," said Jason Maltby, president of national broadcasts for New York-based Mindshare, one of the top broadcast buying firms in a Boston Globe report

But Maltby cautioned that the Beijing Games may generate considerably less interest in the United States than they would if they were hosted by an American city. The Turin Games, for example, have failed to spark the excitement the Salt Lake City Games did.

''It's great to be associated with such a great event, particularly in China," Maltby said. ''But will the Beijing Olympics turn out to be a ratings bonanza or what we're seeing right now, which is not breaking any records?"

The time difference is crucial, several sports marketing specialists said. With NBC already challenged in Turin by stiffer prime-time competition than previous Games, the network has also faced the problem of many Olympic events ending before prime time in America. Turin is six hours ahead of Boston, while Beijing will be 12 hours ahead.

''It gets harder to generate huge ratings when the buzz just doesn't seem to be there," said Maltby, acknowledging problems given the time differences and lack of interest when the Games are held outside the United States. ''When you hold the Games in Atlanta or Salt Lake City, you get buzz."

IOC officials downplayed the declining US ratings, maintaining a global view.

''We have many great hopes and expectations for the Beijing Olympics," said Gerhard Heiberg, chairman of the IOC's marketing commission. ''We feel the Games will be a very important part of Olympic history."

NBC Universal again announced Tuesday plans to present more than 3,600 hours of coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, the most ambitious single media project in history and more than the combined total of every Summer Olympics ever televised in the United States. The Beijing Olympic Games will begin one year from today, August 8, 2008, with unprecedented around-the-clock coverage and, for the first-time ever in the U.S., live streaming Olympic broadband video coverage. The announcement was made yesterday from Beijing by Dick Ebersol, Chairman, NBC Universal Sports & Olympics on the eve of the celebration marking one year to the Beijing Olympic Games.

Following are some of the proposed highlights of NBC Universal's planned Beijing Olympics coverage:

3,600 HOURS: Over the 17 days of the Beijing Games (Aug. 8-24, 2008), NBC Universal will present more than 3,600 hours of coverage highlighted by NBC in primetime which will feature live swimming, gymnastics and beach volleyball, despite the 12-hour time difference from the U.S.'s eastern time zone to Beijing.

SURPASSES COMBINED TOTAL OF ALL PREVIOUS SUMMER OLYMPICS: The 3,600 hours is 1,000 hours more than the total coverage for every televised Summer Olympics in U.S. history. Note: Dating back nearly 50 years to CBS in Rome in 1960 (20 total hours) through NBC in Athens in 2004 (1,210 total hours), the 12 Summer Olympic Games broadcasts have totaled 2,562 hours.

212 HOURS A DAY... OR 8 DAYS A DAY: NBC Universal's coverage will average nearly 212 hours per day for 17 days - more than eight days of coverage during every single day of the Olympics.

TRIPLES ATHENS 2004... 20-TIMES ATLANTA 1996: The more than 3,600 total hours of coverage from Beijing triples the previous record of 1,210 total hours of coverage on NBC from Athens in 2004, is 20 times more than the 171 total hours on NBC from Atlanta in 1996 and 180 times greater than the 20 total hours for the inaugural U.S. Olympic broadcast on CBS from Rome in 1960.

ON-AIR, ONLINE, ON-DEMAND & ON-THE-GO: ON-AIR: NBC Universal's NBC , USA , MSNBC and CNBC will all provide coverage from Beijing with high definition coverage on NBC's HD affiliates, USA HD and Universal HD. Spanish-language Olympic coverage will be seen on NBC Universal's Telemundo.

ONLINE: Olympic fans will have access to approximately 2,200 total hours of live streaming Olympic broadband video coverage on NBCOlympics.com.

ON-DEMAND: In addition to the 3,600 total hours of coverage mentioned above, NBCOlympics.com also will feature approximately 3,000 hours of Highlights, Rewinds and Encores.

It’s easy to speculate what the legacy from the 2008 Games might be. If you believe in the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny the 2008 Summer Games will herald an era of world peace and harmony. If you believe the ‘end of days are near’ the Games will be a disaster of biblical proportion with China sending a more chilling message that Hitler delivered in 1936. Neither scenario makes any sense.

What is likely to happen, the Games will be an overwhelming success athletically for the Chinese. The Chinese will win the 2008 Olympic Games medal count. The Olympic movement will move forward ever so slightly by offering the Games to China, but not as much as true Olympian believers would have hoped. Politically China will take a big step towards capitalism if it hasn’t already as a result of the Games being awarded to China and a very seemingly insignificant step towards a democratic society but an important step nonetheless. Since the terrible events that took place at the 1972 Munich Games Olympic believers have been saddened by how the Olympic Games have become politicalized. That isn’t about to change when the 2008 Olympic Games begin a year from today in Beijing, China.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom.

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