Olympic swimming, gymnastics finals set for mornings in 2008

Thursday, October 26th 2006, 5:05 am
By: News On 6

BEIJING (AP) _ Swimming and most gymnastic finals will be held in the mornings at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, allowing NBC to televise those high-profile events live in the lucrative prime-time American market.

The decision by the International Olympic Committee on Thursday ends months of back-room negotiations between the IOC, international sports federations and TV broadcasters, whose purchase of exclusive rights fees account for more than half the Olympic revenues.

NBC paid $3.5 billion to broadcast the five Olympics from 2000 in Sydney through Beijing. After struggling for ratings at the Turin Winter Games this year, NBC had argued for morning times not only for swimming and gymnastics, but also track and field and basketball for its prime time market.

With Beijing's time zone 12 ahead of New York, eight hours ahead of much of Europe and two behind Australia, all broadcasters wanted key events staged to pull in prime-time audiences.

Aside from putting swimming and most gymnastics finals in the morning in Beijing, the IOC decided that track and field finals, except for the marathon, will be held at night, while diving finals and the men's basketball gold medal game will be in the afternoon.

The IOC announcement brought swift criticism from Australia, whose powerhouse swim team and Olympic committee had lobbied for nighttime finals.

``The only thing that gets me cranky is that (the IOC) have made the decision for commercial reasons, not for the good of the sport,'' said Australian head coach Alan Thompson.

American swimmer Michael Phelps doesn't mind the schedule change.

The six-time Olympic gold medalist has a stated goal of making swimming more than an every-four-years sport in the United States, and he wants to play to a prime-time audience.

``Im glad to have so much time to prepare for the schedule. Weve known a change was a possibility. Now that a decision has been made, we can focus on what we need to do to make the team, and hopefully get a chance to compete in China,'' Phelps said in a statement Thursday. ``Its a level playing field, and I think everybody will be well prepared for the Games, and well see some very fast swims in Beijing.''

IOC members defended the schedule, saying the outcome struck a balance among interests.

``One speaks of one or two sports, but in the end it's about 28 sports,'' Hein Verbruggen, the head of the IOC's coordination commission for the Beijing Games, said at a news conference. ``Such a schedule is a matter of discussion with the host country, the broadcasters and the federations. ... What comes out of it is a compromise.''

Philippe Silacci, spokesman for the international gymnastics federation said the changes were expected.

``This is not surprising to us as we have been consulted over the last few months on this issue,'' Silacci said. ``There was a compromise but it really doesn't affect us very much. This decision does not change anything in the process of the competition itself.''

Interest in the 2008 Games are high, not only for broadcasters who are trying to hold onto viewers, but for corporate sponsors eager to tap the China market and for athletes who could pull in lucrative endorsements along with gold medals.

IOC president Jacques Rogge and members of the executive board reached agreement on the schedule in the last few days while he was traveling in China and Japan, IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said.

The schedule was being sent to international sports federations and broadcasters Thursday, she said, but was not immediately being publicly released.

In reaching their decision, the IOC executive board members looked at past precedents, said Davies.

At the 1988 Seoul Games, for example, swimming, gymnastics and athletics finals were held in the morning, she said. But in 2000 at Sydney, they were not, and the U.S. audience figures were below expectations.

The final schedule puts rowing in the afternoons to catch TV audiences in Britain, where the sport is popular, while diving finals will be staged in the afternoons and evenings, for the Australians, Davies said.

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. Also, athletes are being given longer time to recover between their last heats and the finals, she said.

``Our swimmers are professional athletes,'' said Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates. ``We are confident they will now focus on getting the job done in Beijing.''

The IOC also announced it would increase the number of doping tests for the Beijing Games to 4,500, a 25 percent rise over the controls in Athens in 2004.

A coordination commission review said Beijing's preparations were on track for 2008. But Verbruggen encouraged the local committee to focus on services and other commitments, such as cleaning up the environment, improving traffic and ensuring free access to foreign media.