The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is mulling an Olympic milestone: giving dot-com sports journalists media credentials to cover the Winter Games in 2002.
"The Web sites covering sports are coming of age," said Franklin Servan-Schreiber, director of new media for the IOC. "We're considering a new policy for Salt Lake City (site of the Winter Olympics) to allow the dot-coms into the Games."
The Internet media community has been fuming over the fact that it continues to be shut out of covering the Olympics. In Sydney, 21,000 media credentials will go out to a bevy of international journalists from the major wire services, TV and radio news operations, newspapers and magazines. But not one will go to a Net journo.
Most sports sites have gotten around this barrier by hiring credentialed stringers, or by hanging around outside the venues or in the Olympic Village in the hope of coming away with a quote or two from an athlete. Other, luckier ones have been piggybacked in by their established media parents. For instance, CNNSI.com reporters have been known to use credentials given to Sports Illustrated. And Quokka Sports, through a venture with NBC, is getting access to the athletes and events in Sydney through that network. As the exclusive TV broadcaster of the Games for the U.S., NBC has a bushel of credentials.
Reporters from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, naturally, can simply write stories that go up on the Web site as well as on their newspapers' sports pages.
But major sports sites such as SportsLine in the U.S. and Sportal in Europe, which boast more readers than their newspaper brethren, have been playing at a serious disadvantage. And they've let the Games organizers know about their displeasure.
Servan-Schreiber adds that the Olympic organizers had been considering the credentialing shift since spring, and says they were not pressured into it from the media community.
It's an important first step, says Sports.com Chief Executive Officer Tom Jessiman. "We're still immensely disappointed about Sydney and our inability to get accredited there. But it's certainly progress."
Sports.com, a London-based subsidiary of CBS SportsLine, is one of several dot-coms that will attend an Olympic Internet Summit in Lausanne, Switzerland, this December, to determine how to incorporate the Internet into coverage of the Olympic Games.
The IOC maintains that it is committed to using the Internet to promote the international appeal of Olympic competition. In June it established a sports-news feed for journalists on its site, http://www.Olympic.org/, to help them stay on top of the latest international sports news. More than 1,500 have already signed up. But when it comes to access to the Games themselves, the organization intends to take it slow.
"The decision is not whether or not we will do it," says Schreiber, "But rather under what guidelines and how many we can accommodate."
The issues and complications are varied. For instance, the IOC has placed strict guidelines on the broadcasting of sound and images. NBC, which paid US$705 million for the broadcast rights for the Sydney Games, has the exclusive right to broadcast events in their entirety. Other TV networks can send cameramen but are not allowed to show any video highlights until after NBC has done so.
There are fewer restrictions for print media. Print journalists are permitted to report their articles immediately after an event takes place.
The Net, of course, is a hybrid of print and broadcast, because sites can incorporate real-time coverage, moving pictures and sound.
"They say the Internet is like newspaper or magazines, but it's not," Servan-Schreiber says. "The Internet is a different medium. ...We have to define a new set of guidelines to this that conform to the medium."
Also at issue is which dot-coms would qualify. At Sydney, accredited journalists already outnumber athletes 2 to 1. Granting online journalists access would only add to the fray. "We're not going to give it to just anyone," Servan-Schreiber says.
The IOC has been fiercely protective of media access, primarily because it wants its broadcast partners to get first crack at the action. This week, under intense heat from the European Union, the IOC backed down from an earlier policy that would have banned three of the largest wire services -- the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse -- from certain areas of Sydney's Olympic Park, home to the biggest venues for the Summer Games.
Jessiman said he is pleased to hear the IOC is considering lifting its dot-com ban, but fears that the organizers will impose heavy restrictions. "It would be self-defeating if the IOC didn't permit sports sites to take advantage of all new media," he said, adding that developments in WAP (wireless application protocol) technology and text messaging have already become popular with sports fans who crave the latest scores. "As the IOC gets to understand the sports sites, they may understand that they have an ally instead of a threat."