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Security strangles the Olympic Games

June 14, 2008

Glenda Korporaal
The Australian
June 13, 2008

"WE have no major concerns at all a year from the Games," Seven
Network head of sport Saul Shtein said at a Beijing Olympic press
briefing in October last year.

With the Beijing Games now just eight weeks away Shtein's tune has
changed dramatically, at least behind closed doors.

Shtein was one of nine Olympic host broadcasters at an emergency
meeting with Games organisers in Beijing last month who expressed
their anger, frustration and concern that a wide range of security
problems and key logistical issues essential for television coverage
of the Games had not been resolved.

These include access to filming in Tiananmen Square, accreditation
for crew and drivers, airspace permission for media helicopters to
fly over Beijing for scenic shots, lockdown dates of Olympic venues,
delays in getting equipment into Beijing and whether Seven executive
chairman Kerry Stokes and his guests would be able to watch the
opening ceremony live and the Seven broadcast in their Beijing hotels.

Olympic broadcasting veteran Manolo Romero, who runs the Beijing
Olympic host broadcasting organisation, told the Beijing meeting
customs were confiscating cosmetics and video tapes. "When the big
things start to arrive it will be a major headache," Romero said.

There are fears that China, which is insisting 90,000 would-be
spectators attending the August 8 opening ceremony submit their names
for security checks by the end of June, may apply a similar policy to
all Olympic tickets, an unworkable restriction that would result in
thousands of empty seats in the stands during the Games.

Initial plans for a permanent camera in the Forbidden City during
Games time, as Sydney had pointed at the Harbour Bridge and several
other key beauty spots, have been scuttled by Games organisers
fearful of protests.

"There are still significant issues needing to be resolved
immediately," Shtein told the broadcasters' crisis meeting on May 29.
"They are not trivial issues: they need to be resolved very quickly.
If this story gets out that these difficulties are being experienced
it will have a very negative impact, not only on the Olympic ideals
and on Beijing and China."

Seven, which paid $75 million for the right to televise the Beijing
Games and plans to send up to 400 people there, is refusing to
comment publicly.

But the broadcasters' concerns, which are causing alarm at the
highest level of the International Olympic Committee, may be just a
foretaste of broader problems of access and security restrictions
faced by print media, officials, sponsors, business people,
dignatories, athletes and international spectators.

Minutes of two crisis meetings in the Chinese capital in May between
Olympic host broadcasters with Beijing Olympic organisers in the
Chinese capital in May, which have been obtained by The Australian,
show there are deep-seated concerns among broadcasters, who have paid
billions of dollars for the rights to televise the 2008 Games, and
the International Olympic Committee about security restrictions and
unresolved planning issues that will affect the broadcast.

While world-class Olympic venues stand ready in Beijing and other
cities to receive the athletes, a combination of bureaucratic
inflexibility, fear of Western media, security paranoia in the wake
of the protest-riddled international Olympic torch relay and violent
uprisings in Tibet, have led to oppressive security, overblown
administration and a failure to resolve a string of issues for the
broadcasters at a time when they should be ready for the August 8
opening ceremony.

Seven and fellow other Olympics broadcasters were told in principle
they would be able to do live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. But
they have yet to receive the necessary information and confirmation
about security requirements and where they can operate from and set
up platforms needed for cameras and broadcast crew.

"This is one area that has been confirmed one year ago and now we
find the situation is not clear, " Romero told the Beijing meeting.

Scott Moore from Canadian broadcaster CBC said not being able to do
live reports from Tiananmen was "a disgrace". "I've been told that to
do business in China, you have to have patience," Moore told the
meeting. "We don't have time to have patience."

Another frustrated broadcaster tells The Australian that China's
sensitivity is due to the fact it has not gotten over the 1989
pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. "China does not
want indiscriminate pictures out of there or other iconic places," he
says. "We are already banned from the Forbidden City."

The IOC member in charge of overseeing preparation for the 2008
Olympics, Hein Verbruggen, admitted during the May meetings that the
IOC's deepest fears had always been about when Chinese organisers
moved from planning to execution.

"We are working in a rather bureaucratic system (which) makes the
whole decision making process rather difficult," Verbruggen told the
meeting. "We have known and have always feared - or tried to prepare
for - that once you get into execution, it's not as smooth as in
preparing and planning."

Verbruggen said China's security concerns following the protests
against the international Olympic torch relay were complicating life
for organisers and participants in the Games: "What has happened
around the torch has resulted in a stepping up of the whole security
issue, and security weighs heavily on all the decision-making now."

John Barton from the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union said he was
"appalled" by the security presentation.

While Verbruggen felt the Beijing Olympic organising committee had
"been doing their best", issues had moved beyond their control with
other more senior arms of government moving in to supervise different
aspects of the Games. "Over the past years we have seen a shift from
BOCOG to other government bodies, like the city," he said. "They are
very heavily involved in everything now - not to mention the national
Government - when it comes to security issues."

At the meeting, Romero also expressed concern about hold-ups in the
processing of accreditations for television broadcast crews. "There
is a delay in the distribution that was initially to be scheduled at
the beginning of June," he said. "Now it's the end of June. This will
mean certain broadcasters will have to apply for visas as they will
not have their Olympic accreditation in their hands (when they travel
to Beijing)."

Broadcasters' accreditation frustrations are echoed by the Australian
Government's trade promotion arm Austrade, which will protest to
China over Beijing's crackdown on issuing visas to foreigners ahead
of the Games.

The crackdown, prompted by fear of human rights protesters entering
China, was disrupting Australian business travel to China, Austrade
chief executive Peter O'Byrne says. "We understand the
visa-tightening is driven by security concerns around the Beijing
2008 Olympic Games but it also affects business beyond this period."

The May 13 meeting also revealed Olympic organisers may insist all
ticket holders to all events be identified by name as early as June
30. This would throw into chaos plans of sponsors and broadcasters to
bring in thousands of executives and guests to the Games as many
invitees do not decide until the last minute.

Seven's Olympic producer Andy Kay told the meeting if organisers
insisted on maintaining the policy "it would result in chaos and a
loss of a lot of money".

European Broadcasting Union sports operations head Fernando Pardo
told the meeting the policy was "complicated and crazy" Moore warned
it could result in "thousands of empty seats".

Communications were also causing headaches, with Kay telling the
meeting Seven had spent three years trying to organise the Seven
signal into its corporate hotel in Beijing. But this, like many other
requests, was met with a request to put it in writing. Given there is
so little time left to fix these major and mounting problems, the
put-it-in-writing request that met so many queries caused a boil over.

"How many times do we have to do that?" Romero demanded. "You have
heard it two weeks ago. You have heard it in September. You have
heard it in all the presentations. We can put it in writing again but
how many times?"

IOC member and NBC executive Alex Gilady said it was "a disgrace" and
"we have to stop it now". "If they think that we are going to be so
stupid, that after a broadcaster briefing, to send them questions,
maybe by mail, and wait two to three weeks for them to respond, this
is not going to work. They have to understand they cannot come in
front of the broadcasters of the world and tell them 'We will not
listen to any of your questions. Send them to BOCOG' and think that
that will be the procedure in the future."

Barton added his voice to the discontent. "At every point in these
Games we are going to come up against security problems and the fact
that this guy had to get up and say, put your questions in writing,
is endemic of the issues that we face," Barton told the meeting. "My
experience in this part of the world goes back many years: by putting
questions on paper, it says to me that those questions will never be
ultimately answered."

Kay urged Beijing organisers it was in everyone's interests to
resolve the issues. "If you can't answer our questions, then tell us
who can, and we will go there," Kay said. "But don't tell us we have
to wait. We don't have the time."

Gary Zenkel, who represents the powerful US broadcaster NBC, the
biggest single supplier of funding for the Olympic movement, warned
that the Games would be stained if outstanding logistical issues were
not resolved. "These Games will suffer and these problems will be
presented to the world," Zenkel warned. "They don't do justice to
these Olympics. This is a big day for China and the Olympics and it
maybe lost if there isn't an immediate change or movement made by the
government or whomever. It had to happen. We hope the wake-up call is heard."

In preparation for the meeting, TVNZ's John West said he went back to
the first world broadcast meeting, where Beijing Olympic Organising
Committee president Liu Qi said: "We made commitments regarding the
policies on the coverage of the Games preparations and the Olympic
Games by foreign journalists in China. We will keep our promises and
provide broadcasters and media with quality and convenient services".

"And that's all were asking for," West said. "We look for those words
becoming truth."
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