Thursday, 28 June 2012

Forget sport! Why the Olympics is all about money for the IOC

The Olympics is without a doubt the greatest sporting event in the world. Every four years, nearly every nation comes together to compete for the glory of a gold medal and making their country proud. Even if you don’t like sport, the Olympics offers viewers and the public a chance to get involved at every level, whether it be volunteering or enjoying the Cultural Olympiad.

The London 2012 games promises to be no different, with the legacy aiming to reignite the nation’s, particularly kids, love for sport. In fact today, with one month to go to the opening ceremony, the whole nation is gearing up to host the biggest party of the year.

So surely this national event should remain truly public, ensuring that all the nation are able to watch and view the sporting events? Well, it seems that the International Olympic Committee have other ideas. This week, IOC president Jacques Rogge confirmed that the broadcasting rights to the next Winter Olympics (in Sochi 2014) and the Summer Olympics (in Rio 20126) are up for grabs, with negotiations likely to start from the end of this week.

Currently, broadcasting rights to the Olympics in the UK are solely in the hands of the BBC. The BBC has promised to show over 2,500 hours of coverage for this year’s Olympics, and has been the host broadcaster for several decades. Promising red button viewing, special channels and even 3D coverage, the BBC’s coverage has been critically acclaimed over the years.

But the IOC, looking to raise money through lucrative broadcasting rights, are looking to negotiate with pay-tv and telecommunication giants, namely BSkyB and BT (who both recently took out a lucrative, highly expensive contract for the Premiership football rights), where the coverage would be handed to them, making a nice profit for the IOC.

Although the broadcasting rights to the Olympics are protected under legislation, the IOC is looking to reach a deal where 200 hours of free-to-air content would be reserved for say the BBC (or Channel 4, who took over the Paralympics and World Athletics coverage recently) and show the rest through pay-TV or another platform.

For me, these plans and calls by the president are rather worrying. Can you imagine having to pay to watch coverage of the Olympics on a subscription-based system? No, nor can I. Not only will it be breaking with tradition, but there’s several negative consequences here.

Firstly, the coverage of the Olympics on the BBC rivals all other broadcasters. It’s free to air, meaning everyone in the UK with a television set has the ability to watch the Olympics. Compare that to BT Vision, who have around 750,000 subscribers (I am one, and I certainly don’t think it’s worth the cost), which will significantly decrease the profile of the Olympics. The legacy of the Olympics is to inspire generations and promote sport, a legacy which will be compromised if the rights go to a pay-TV channel.

Secondly, the tactics used by the president to report on such ‘negotiations’ creates a bidding war atmosphere which ultimately the BBC is going to suffer in. The Beeb already facing the burden of 25% budget cuts in Sport, has recently lost key sporting events such as horse racing to Channel 4, the French Open to ITV and most of the Formula 1 to Sky. Sky, BT or ESPN will have significantly more money to put on the table, and with the IOC increasingly looking to make money rather than promote sport nowadays, the BBC is in a difficult position.

So what should happen? Well, I’d like to think the government would step in and protect the rights of the Olympics to free-to-air broadcasting. But sadly, I don’t think that will happen. We know from recent events how close a certain minister for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is with News Corporation and BSkyB, and with the government preferring business and privatization, I doubt the government will even raise an eyebrow over the plans.

Which is where public opinion comes in. Yes, good old public opinion. The government would be wise to keep track of public opinion over the plans. No doubt sporting stars, the BBC and fans of the Olympics will protest at the plans if they get the go-ahead. I mean, just look at the petitions and condemnation over the Formula 1 rights! With London 2012 looming, surely the number of people watching and participating in the Olympics could help sway the view of the government in ensuring the rights remain free-to-air. The Olympics generate publicity, which generates interest from the public and abroad, which helps boost the economy.

Well, anything goes really. All I know is that it will be a sad day if the Olympics was privatized into the hands of a conglomerate like Sky or BT who would profit from the Olympics legacy. The IOC looks certain to back the plans, with similar circumstances on rights already agreed for countries like Italy. The IOC you’d think would be keen to retain their dwindling popularity after the furore over the sponsorship of Dow Chemicals and other companies.

But that’s the case for most sport nowadays sadly, it’s not about the taking part or being a representative for your country, it’s about making as much money as possible. The Olympics would just add to a long list of sports which have been sold out to big companies so that orgaisations like the IOC can make a tidy profit.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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