AT LARGE: Oi! Oi! Oi!

A friend of mine (whose word I trust implicitly) was one of the army of selfless volunteers giving of their time during the Games of the XXVII Olympiad to keep things moving smoothly. Early in the Games, she was approached by one of our valued overseas' guests who was confused and becoming increasingly agitated. It seems this welcome visitor could not locate the venue for her sporting event on any of the maps provided around Sydney. She had tickets to a soccer match that very day, and needed urgently to know where this "MCG" thing is and how to get there.

The moral of this story is that a successful Olympics depends entirely upon masses of information being disseminated rapidly and reliably. Fail to do that, and the whole thing will not succeed.

The gold medal for suppression of Olympic information has to go, ironically, to the official exclusive American broadcaster. The National Broadcasting Company, as you may well be aware, paid a significant sum of money - in US dollars, mind you, not the local pesos - for the right to be the sole source of TV images worldwide. What you may not be aware of is that the money paid by NBC is actually a very large proportion of the total amount it costs to host the Games. Sydney reputedly got nearly a billion dollars out of them. Add to that a small contribution from the taxpayer of NSW, and the rest we can cover with sales of t-shirts, pins and body tattoos.

As you would expect, NBC wants something for that money. It muscled the organisers into scheduling events at viewer-friendly times for the American audience, even though that meant plunging Eastern Australia into daylight savings a month early. It charged its advertisers premium rates for the relatively few ads (9-10 minutes per hour) that it ran during its telecasts. They, in return, were guaranteed a certain minimum number of viewers. If the ratings fell below a certain number, NBC would refund some of that money.

And that's where it all started to fall down. At the last minute, NBC decided that even the incredibly accommodating schedule the Australians had produced (running the 100m sprint finals at night, for instance) was not enough to guarantee the kind of ratings it needed, so it would not show the events live. It created its own "virtual Sydney", removed by 15 hours from the real one. While the real Sydney slept (or partied all night, depending), "virtual Sydney" was bright and sunny and active, right there on NBC. Like a sporting version of The Truman Show, NBC was able to dictate exactly when the sun would rise and fall.

But here's the problem. While major events such as the said 100m final were yet to be run in "virtual Sydney", the real world was already aware of the results. In an event where hundredths of a second count, NBC had given itself a half-day handicap. If everyone knows the results, they're not likely to sit anxiously in front of a TV set pretending they don't.

So, to save its virtual world, NBC set out to suppress the real one. It assembled a small army, operating out of Australia, Europe, Britain and the US, monitoring the Web constantly and making sure as little information as possible slipped out about what was really happening. This was the first Olympiad since the Internet really started to boom and certainly the first since streaming video took off - and NBC killed it. What should have been the first true multimedia Games was far from it.

NBC's own site, of course, was as removed from reality as its TV coverage - little wonder it ended up being only the third most popular Olympic site, after the BBC and SOCOG's official site. The TV ratings were also down - once or twice it made the minimum guaranteed numbers, but most of the time it was shelling out refunds. It blamed a mysterious downturn in the general level of interest in sport.

I'd go the opposite way and blame NBC for not recognising its customers' level of interest in the information it had at its disposal. Because it was not willing to give out that information when its customers wanted it, they simply found other sources - no matter how hard they had to look.

The next Games are in 2002, and they're in the US, where NBC won't be quite so panicky about time zones. Let's see if by then, the broadcaster has learned to work with the Internet, not to tilt quixotically against it.

Matthew JC. Powell wishes to congratulate Kieren Perkins on a well-won silver medal, but doesn't think the "superfish" reads ARN. Any Olympic medallists are welcome to drop him a line on mjcpowell@ozemail.com.au

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