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Monday, September 18, 2000

IOC creates hurdles for Olympic Web sites

THE first record to be broken at this yearís Olympics is unlikely to be on the track or field. A vast audience logged on to Olympics.com on Friday. The official Olympics site is likely to go down as the recipient of the largest number of hits ever sustained by a single Web site in one day, despite FBI-sanctioned warnings of hacker attacks.

Days before the start of the games, it was already the third most popular Web site in Australia. IBM ó the official Internet and communications partner for the Sydney Olympics ó predicts more than 6.5 billion hits for Olympics.com over the next two weeks.

But, despite the welter of statistics on the site and the massive number of hits, one thing will be missing: live, streaming video from the games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has banned it all, and started pursuit of countless Websites, which it says are breaking the law.


It is already a fierce battle. The Web sites are accusing the IOC of being monolithic and heavy handed, and say the IOC is acting against the spirit of the games.

At stake are the IOCís lucrative contracts with broadcasters, which include traditional television stations, such as the BBC, NBC and Seven Networks in Australia. For the first time, the IOC has also signed exclusive deals with the "broadband" operators to show highlights of the games on the Internet.

To protect these deals, the IOC has clamped down hard. As well as a complete lack of live action, only a tiny number of broadband users will be able to see any highlights online, via the Web sites of official partners.

Unofficial Web sites are not supposed to use any audio or video from the games, and dot.com sports journalists are barred. Even competitors are unable to write online diaries of their experiences in Sydney ó it was reported last week that this would be in breach of the IOCís code of conduct for athletes.

Using the 1999 US Anti-Cybersquatting Act, the IOC is also targeting the Web sites that use "Olympic" language in their addresses. Nearly 2,000 domains are being sued in a class action, ranging from companies unrelated to the games, through pornographers and ticket touts to amateur athletics sites.

The roots of the problem lie back in 1994, before the Internet reared its egalitarian head as a mass communications medium. Then, the IOC signed a $-4-billion deal with the American broadcaster NBC for exclusive TV coverage of the Olympics from 1998 to 2008.

NBC wants to show "live" Olympics at prime time in the USA, to maximise advertising revenue. But the time difference between Sydney and the USA means NBC is going to delay all its coverage by half a day. The network fears the Net could steal a march by offering video to the US audience before NBC gets round to its "live" package.

A number of the sites named in the class action have hit back, saying they never had any intention of broadcasting highlights of the games, and claiming the action is a ruse to silence outlets not sanctioned by the all-powerful IOC.

Chris Jenkins is the managing director of a small Internet company in Aberdeen, Scotland, which has been on the sharp end of the IOC and its lawyers. His company, Planet Scotland, runs Web sites dedicated to niche sports such as fishing and golf, and last year registered 58 domain names containing the word Olympic.

The plan was to provide a circuit of sites based around a central hub called Planet Olympics ó in time for the Athens Games in 2004. But in July, the company received a letter from its Net registrar, saying that its domains had been frozen. A ruling in the US courts had deemed Planet Scotland was among those companies illegally cybersquatting on Olympic domains.

Planet Scotland says it is doing no harm and is outraged that the US legislation is enforceable in the UK. "We are not cybersquatting in any shape or format," says Jenkins.

The company has even promised to donate all profits to an Olympic charity. Jenkins continues: "It (IOC) is prepared to pour a lot of money into lawyersí pockets instead of using it for the benefit of the Olympic athletes".

The IOC has accused Planet Scotland of acting in bad faith, and claims that although Planet Scotland is not trading in the USA, it is still subject to the US jurisdiction because the domain, like all other domain names, is ultimately US registered. Many of those caught up in the suit are in the grass roots of athletics ó Olympics enthusiasts who have created Web sites around the event.

Since 1998, Robert Livingstone has been running TorontoSummerGames.com, a news and information site, which monitors the Olympic bidding process. A year ago, Livingstone decided there was demand for an independent Web site monitoring all Olympic bids. He registered OlympicBids.com, and began developing it in time for the Sydney Olympics. The site was due to go live last month.

He heard about the IOCís class action through friends, but at the time of going to the Press was yet to hear from the IOC or its lawyers, despite his domain being included in the class action.

He says: "The IOC tied up our domain name so that we couldnít change any information on it. We couldnít change the owner, the address information. We could not renew it and we couldnít change the site to another server. It was simply frozen."

After weeks of wrangling with the IOCís lawyers, he has finally been told informally that he can keep the domain name. "What really disappoints me is that they landed me in a class action with a whole bunch of domains that they really know nothing about. The IOC is guilty of issuing writs and asking questions later," he says.

He is still waiting for written confirmation of the IOCís agreement and, in the meantime, the site remains frozen during its most crucial time ó two weeks after the IOC short-listed for 2008 Olympics.

This week the IOC confirmed to a London-based Guardian newspaper that it sought to shut down Web sites that made use of Olympic names, such as Olympic.com, the site of a company selling wood stain and waterproofing sealant. But a spokesperson said that the legal action would not bear fruit for some time.

It said it had no plans to renegotiate its major rights deals, which in NBCís case, run until 2008. An IOC conference on new media sports coverage in Lausanne this December could provide impetus for fresh thinking in the Olympic movement about the Internet age.

The IOC spokesperson said it would not be penalising fan sites run by amateur sports enthusiasts. "Itís one thing to provide a photograph or comment, but itís another thing to imply involvement with the official sites." But Helen Lensky, author of Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism, disagrees, and says the IOC had used draconian tactics to protect its deals with the broadcasters.

She cites the removal of a 30-year-old trademark from the Olympic restaurant in Sydney as a sign that the IOC will stop at nothing to protect its sponsors. "The IOC has shown itself determined to stamp out any voices contrary to the official Olympic message. It is not interested in any kind of coverage that might be critical to the games." Itís not just the Olympics. During Euro 2000, UEFA barred Internet journalists with the exception of Sportal, the sports portal that won the contract to run the official site. Sportal was also a title sponsor for Euro 2000, for which it paid $ 9.3m.

The Internet right for major sporting events is a very big business ó and the Olympics are no exception. Only a fortnight ago, [email protected], Australiaís [email protected] high-speed cable access service, struck a deal with Australiaís official Olympic broadcaster to beam its daily highlights package to computers in, potentially, 2.2m Australian homes.

"I think Channel Seven and us are just scratching the surface," says Chris Chapman, chief executive officer of [email protected] He accepts that the closed nature of [email protected]ís audience is the reason for bagging the Olympic deal, but says: "I have no doubt that sport in particular is going to drive the development of a truly international mode of broadband." [email protected] is the first deal that will deliver Olympic television highlights over a cable broadband service in Australia, but across the globe, other commercial bargains are being struck over the Olympics.

Chello, a European Internet service provider, plans to show Olympic video through a deal with a European TV station. And in the USA, NBC and Quokka will show 20-minute highlight packages to broadband users. These are all excluded from the IOCís class action.

So, even though the athletes will still compete with every sinew in their bodies over the coming weeks, the battle that has already been fought over the Web hints that noble notions of the Olympics as the amateur "peopleís games" now belongs to a pre-Internet age.

ó By arrangement with The Guardian