Exclusive By Steven V. Selthoffer
EINDHOVEN, Netherlands, November 9. AS the Olympic athletes and public adjusts to global system shock imposed on the swimming and gymnastics world after the NBC IOC decision to move swimming finals from the evening to the morning for commercial purposes, the negative anti-American fallout continues to build and simmer across Europe and beyond.
NBC and the IOC have harmed the Olympic Movement by denying the rights of Olympic athletes from being able to perform their lifetime best for the convenience of American commercialism. "The Decision" is not final in many minds.
The recent NBC and IOC decision to move the Olympic swimming finals from the traditional and established sporting norms of evenings to mornings, for the American television audience and commercial purposes is economically short-sighted, ethically wrong and damages the peak human performance of the athletes. The decision has already harmed the swimmers and gymnasts, the Olympic Movement and compromised the integrity of the Olympic Games.
NBC has overstepped its boundaries, and enraged the sporting world, by violating sporting norms and jeopardizing peak human performance standards in exchange for American commercials and advertising revenue.
If it's not about sport excellence, optimal peak human performance and putting the athlete's first- then it's not Olympic. Period.
Ebersol's demand for "more morning finals for more sports," constituted a bargaining strategy at the expense of the athletes. The decision "represents a mixed bag for NBC," which had wanted morning times "not only for swimming and gymnastics, but also track and field and basketball."
Hein Verbruggen, Beijing Coordination Commission Vice-Chairman stated, "I would like to deny that we are doing the bidding of certain broadcasters." However, earlier BOCOG press releases contradict Verbruggen, "The move from night time to day time was required by US rights holder NBC, which will allow it to air those events live in prime time."
Under closer scrutiny, the arguments made by the IOC justifying the decision to move the finals from evening to morning cannot be sustained. In the Netherlands media, Verbruggen has taken major hits. In discussions on Dutch TV, Netherlands' top swimming coach, Jacco Verhaeren, PSV Einhoven, revealed fundamental weaknesses in Verbruggen's and NBC's decision in regards to its effects upon athletes performance and European and national swimming revenues. Verhaeren stated, "They don't understand the sport. It's harmful to swimming and the Olympics. Clearly the sports governing bodies are not representing us as they should."
Verbruggen has attempted to counter mounting international criticism, "It has always been like this, the schedule is always the result of a thorough consultation process and what comes out of this is a compromise. For example, in Seoul in 1988, many events were held in the morning." However, the reality was that the 1988 Seoul Games morning finals were not successful. Morning finals were imposed once, only in part during the week, and then abandoned. No world records were set in the mornings. No one, not one single swimming federation, and not one championship of any major sport has moved to make morning finals a "norm" after the ‘88 Games. It wasn't good for swimming. The one-off occurrence was not good for sports.
Mike Bottom, head coach of the University of California, Berkeley, in the U.S. and one of the pre-eminent Olympic swimming coaches who has had his hand in coaching nine out of the last 18 Olympic medallists in the sprints, commented in line with other top coaches and sport executives, succinctly by calling the decision "insane." "They don't know what they're doing."
What's emerging among the Olympic federations and organizations is the widening division between those who are the real leaders in sports and the Olympic Movement and those who are not.
IOC Director of Communication Giselle Davies' announcement of "contentious, back-room negotiations," revealed among some federation chiefs a poor understanding of television broadcast mechanisms, sport norms and peak Olympic performance.
To ensure that athletes' performance would not be affected by the scheduling Davies said, "the schedule's early release gives competitors sufficient time to adjust their training." The situation has been difficult for Davies. She's a consummate professional. That's hard to say with a straight face. The IOC advisors expose a limited understanding of athletic body rhythms, biomechanics, physiology and applied sport science. Adjusting training time cannot change basic human physiology. A 2004 article, Morning vs. Evening Maximal Cycle Power and Technical Swimming Ability by Veronique J. Deschodt and Laurent M. Arsac, Victor Segalen University, Bordeaux, France published by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, studied the impact of the time of day on top swimming performance. The article stated that swimming performances were greater in the evening with respect to top power and technical ability. That is also widely known at the Xth International Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming Conference that was held June 21-24 at the University of Porto, Porto, Portugal. Try setting the world record in the men's 100m run after a Saturday morning 9 a.m. breakfast coffee. You won't do it. It doesn't matter how hard you train.
Many executives who made the decision have never coached an Olympic swimmer or lived in the Olympic Village. The swimmers won't sleep the entire night before the morning finals. It will harm performance.
Swimmers will Fail to Meet Olympic Qualifying Standards
Swimmers who submit to the NBC IOC decision of morning finals will fail to make Olympic qualifying standards if they attempt to qualify at less than the peak hours for optimal human performance. It comes down to hundreds of a second and those in the sprints will suffer the most if they comply with morning finals before Beijing.
Chuck Wielgus, Executive Director, USA Swimming, stated, "This is a great opportunity for our sport to be showcased to the nearly one billion people in the potential television audience of the Americas during the first nine days of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The live prime time exposure is something that can only benefit the sport of swimming, and enhance the public profile of our sport's top athletes."
Wielgus has it half right. It's a great media exposure opportunity – for U.S. swimmers, but at the expense of peak Olympic performance and everyone else.
What will USA Swimming do during its own U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in 2008? USA Swimming posted the notification on their official Internet site. The swimming finals will remain in the evenings.
And what about Doha? The third largest sporting event, the 15th Asian Games hosted this December in Doha, Qatar, with 45 countries participating with 39 sports and 423 events, senior executive organizers have no intention of complying either with the newly-imposed NBC Olympic format for swimming and gymnastics.
FINA and NBC
The role of FINA disclosed a "culture of resignation and acquiescence" not strong enough to protect the integrity of the sport or powerful enough to stand against the IOC.
The IOC has violated and broken its own Olympic Charter and Code of Ethics. The Charter states that it opposes "any form of discrimination with regard to a person on the grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise, is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement" It also is committed to "opposing any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes." Congratulations. They have done both. One former senior SOCOG executive called the decision "unethical."
The IOC also did not observe the Code of Ethics' Section 3, failing to protect the athletes and FINA from "interference" of "the organizing and staging of sports competitions."
In summary, the Code states, "C. Resources. Section 3. "The Olympic parties recognise the significant contribution that broadcasters, sponsors, partners and other supporters of sport events make to the development and prestige of the Olympic Games…. However, such support must be in a form consistent with the rules of sport and the principles defined in the Olympic Charter and the present Code. They must not interfere in the running of sports institutions. The organization and staging of the sports competitions is the exclusive responsibility of the independent sports organizations recognized by the IOC." (pg. 3)
Not NBC and not the IOC. Ouch. The IOC Ethics Commission can count on drafting a new report to be submitted to the Executive Board on the application of the present Code including "proposals that might be taken against those responsible." No problem. They'll have a lot of help.
An actual fact is that dog and pony shows in Europe and animals in Hollywood films have more codified "rights" protecting performance than Olympic athletes.
NBC vs. the Athletes
The IOC stated that "after a thorough consultation process," with "all stakeholders" the decision was made. Bunk. The entire decision and IOC procedural committee process among the Executive Board, the IOC Commission for Radio and Television and the IOC Commission for Television Rights and New Media, for moving the swimming finals from evening to morning was neither transparent nor fair to the athletes. Insiders and other sport executives are speaking of "influence peddling," long-term "lobbying" efforts and "conflicts of interest" scenarios with Commission members over the last three Olympic winter and summer Games. Talks of who-sat-on-what Commissions, from what company, and who-had-"fall-outs"-with-whom, are emerging.
It's like a bad race. NBC cheated. Bigger and better funded, they were given the inside lane, and a big head-start. Bang. The gun went off. The athletes and press had only a small amount of time to react. No chance. Boom. Race over. The IOC was the starter, referee and jury. They quickly declared NBC the winner. Decision final.
Many stakeholders and concerned parties were omitted from meetings and negotiations. The IOC has proven it makes for a bad referee in deciding what is good or fair for the athletes and Olympic Movement with various media representatives on its Commissions and without honest open dialogue and processes. They didn't have it eight years ago. They don't have it now.
The NBC IOC financial issues are historical. NBC bid $3.55 billion for the Games, plus debt assumption, during secret negotiations in 1997 though the official announcement in 1998. They were closed negotiations. No one was consulted except the IOC. The athletes weren't. If FINA and the public knew before hand that the integrity of the Games would later be in jeopardy or compromised and the performance of the athletes would be harmed by such a high bid, NBC would never have won the rights.
It's absurd to imagine holding swimmers and their evening finals in Beijing hostage and responsible for "protecting the $3.55 billion investment" made eight years ago by NBC. Swimmers cannot save NBC's EBITDA or their cash-flow position and shouldn't. NBC's problems are due to a matrix of factors including its deal with Quokka, domestic ABC, CBS network prime-time competition and other new media. The IOC was responsible itself for losing IBM as a TOP Sponsor after 40 years of financial and technical support, and combining the Winter Olympic Nielsen Ratings and market share concerns with the Summer Games is unfair to the athletes.
Where is European Compensation?
In order for swimmers to "acclimatize" themselves to the new swimming environment imposed by NBC, all other swimming championships globally will have to change in the next two years to morning finals as well. It will be economic disaster for more than 51 national swimming federations of the Ligue Europeanne de Natation (LEN), headquartered in Rome, Italy. Where is the NBC financial compensation for the European television broadcasters, swimming federations and athletes to compensate for the loss of revenue for the next two years to cow-tow to the one-off, American TV morning finals in Beijing? Phelps won't have to worry about competition in London 2012. His competitors won't have much money to train.
While many NCAA swimmers complain of the cafeteria food after workouts, decent food at training facilities is hard to come by in Eastern Europe. It would astonish many Americans to see where Pieter van den Hoogenband trains in Eindhoven, Netherlands. The facilities are outdated and the water is a muted shade of blue-green. Dreary by U.S. standards. Not a palm tree, lounge chair or bikini babe in sight. It's no Texas, USC or Indianapolis. Athens Olympic Silver medallist, Duje Draganja's pool in Croatia still contains bullet holes from the Bosnian War. Threats of draining the funding from fledgling European swim federations, home to some of Phelps' rivals, is fomenting anger and deep divisions.
The reality and number crunching calculations of revenue loss is already sinking in. European Swimming Championship hosts are already livid and LEN officials are talking of "backing out" of Championship event commitments in 2008. Heeding the IOC's Davies advice for training and talk of championship "adjustments" the calculated financial damage to the host federations will be steep. It's expected to be millions of Euros for swimming alone, including losing broadcast, sponsor and developmental funding, according to NOC sources.
European, Australian and others see moving the swimming finals to morning as: an American broadcaster wanting more American commercials, for highlighting American products, for the primary comfort of the American audience, for American Olympic glory, specifically for an American swimmer (Phelps), at the expense of international competition, everyone's peak performance and the integrity of the sport.
The equation is not good for the Olympics, NBC and Phelps. It's a win-lose proposition. NBC wins, everyone else loses. Bad decision. Bad precedent.
"It's a shut-up and get in line attitude," said one former ATHOC official. Swimmers, coaches and others however, are taking matters into their own hands
The projected revenue NBC plans to gain by live broadcast versus taped delay or early viewing in whole or in part, of promotions and news, on some or in combination with all, its multi-platform formats of NBC, USA, MSNBC, CNBC, Bravo, Telemundo and NBC's HDTV affiliates against potential legal threats and public relations scenarios is incomplete and miscalculated.
Preliminary legal strategy is already being discussed for before and after the Beijing Games. What about places 4-16? It won't be "sour-grapes" if an athlete or relay fails to perform their best in the morning finals. It's a scientific fact they won't. They may demand compensation for wrongfully being denied the ability to perform at peak levels. They do not have the same opportunity an American swimmer has for endorsements coming from a smaller country.
Recent reports show that NBC and IOC officials cited decreased U.S. prime time market share in the 2000 Sydney Games as justification for moving swimming finals to mornings in the 2008 Beijing Games.
However, the falling market share argument contradicts the actual Sydney post-Olympic Games Evaluation Committee Report and IOC members that cited "record broadcast revenues" for the 2000 Olympic Games. "The success of the Olympic Games in Sydney is clear. The record breaking results (television) are a strong indicator of worldwide exposure afforded to the Olympics and shows the importance of this sporting event to billions of fans in every part of the globe." Dick Pound, IOC Marketing Commission. The final Sydney 2000 Marketing Overview reports, "A 70% increase over NBC's norm for prime time" in total coverage and increased viewers (pg 7).
Early discussions in Europe among the attorneys representing the athletes are zeroing in on New York and the Court of Arbitration and Sport (CAS) in Lausanne, Switzerland. New York is where the power and money is. Lausanne is for the moral victory. Much more is at stake than gold medals. It is determining what and who will prevail in sport.
IOC's Davies' Nov. 1 statement that "The decision… by the IOC's Executive Board…is final.", has left a bitter taste and hardened opposition. It's not Seoul ‘88. They're not amateurs anymore. This time they are organized, well-funded and angry. Preliminary plans to bring NBC and the IOC into legal and PR gridlock are under way in the U.S. and Europe. They are targeting potential advertisers, shareholders groups and corporate annual meetings among other options.
Stakeholders have already been in talks with U.S. Supreme Court winning attorneys and media campaign organizers in Europe. With a pool of global Olympic talent behind them, what advertiser would want to be seen "harming Olympic athletes by hurting their performance?"
Swimming will "just do it" to NBC and the IOC in the media and courts. Two years is a long time for any potential advertiser to endure waves of negative press of hurting the Olympic athletes by harming their performance and to leverage sound-thinking against bad commercial decisions. The country-by-country medal column may include advertiser withdrawals, PR coups and legal cases.
Targeting early advertisers, such as Olympic TOP Sponsors, by partner, product and category is in the planning. Sponsors will have to have a "re-think."
What corporation wants their reputation to be associated with denying the rights of Olympic athletes from being able to perform his or her lifetime bests for the priority of an American beer commercial or the convenience of a perceived to be, lazy, American audience?
Swimming won't take it.
Moral Battle for Sport Excellence
It's not just a "schedule change", it's a fight for global sporting values and it will determine and define the Olympics now and for the future. Will peak human performance and athletes' welfare prevail or power commercialism?
Swimming needs to push back and push back hard. The pool was the venue for the battle against doping highlighted by the DDR. It was "swimming" that assessed the situation, stepped up, fought and prevailed against the odds and the drug culture mentality of its day.
Swimming can win again.
Rogge and Ebersol are good for sport. Bob Wright, Chairman and CEO, NBC Universal and his team need to take the financial KPI pressure off Ebersol. NBC can have record revenues and the most successful Games ever without harming the athletes performance and moving swimming finals to morning. It's a global event. Athletic performance norms must be firmly established, by time zone and host country, no matter who is broadcasting the Games. FINA and other federations need to protect the integrity of sport and insert caveats into future IOC television negotiations stipulating that coverage will not compromise athletic performance- beginning now.
Many view NBC's demand to have morning finals for the American TV audience as selfish and harmful to competition. With the media already discussing highlighting Phelps going for his possible 16th Olympic medal, many see it at the expense of his competitors.
Phelps and his coach, Bob Bowman are a first-class team. They represent the best of sport. But, Phelps' extraordinary performances and the public knowledge of NBC's planned promotion of Phelps and U.S. swimming, should not be seen as anti-competitive or at the expense of their international rivals. Phelps and Bowman are too good for all the right reasons. They don't deserve to be tainted or have their performance placed under a cloud of controversy. NBC will do more than lose money. They will damage Phelps and U.S. sport interests significantly for years to come.
Steven V. Selthoffer is a communication specialist based in Germany who has coached a number of Olympic swimmers and who served as a commentator for swimming for the 2000 Sydney Games. He has been called to testify before a number of government committees in Washington D.C., the United Kingdom and Germany on various international government relation and security issues.
Should you have any responses to this article, please contact our managing editor Jason Marsteller and he will forward them on to Selthoffer.