SBJ/20080825/Beijing Olympics

ESPN cries foul over access to U.S. Olympians in Beijing

It’s never easy for television networks to cover the Olympics when they don’t own the rights. When a network pays $894 million for the rights to broadcast the Beijing Games, like NBC did, it gets and enforces exclusive access to athletes for on-camera interviews at stadiums.

The U.S. Olympic Committee tries to make athletes available to non-rights holders within a few hours of competition, but a failure to do so with three medal-winning American fencers on the Games’ opening Saturday rubbed ESPN the wrong way.

A 20-hour delay for interviews with fencers Mariel Zagunis, Sada Jacobson and Becca Ward had ESPN executives grumbling last week that many athletes weren’t available in a timely fashion in Beijing.

ESPN executives said they were prepared for the restrictions that occur for non-rights holders at every Olympics, but were particularly miffed by the nearly full-day delay for the U.S. fencers, who swept the top three spots in the saber category.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t want their athletes to get better exposure,” said one ESPN executive, who asked not to be identified.

The delay, in part, was caused by the tragic stabbing that Saturday of Todd and Barbara Bachman, the father- and mother-in-law of the U.S. men’s volleyball coach. The tragedy forced the USOC to deal with an unexpected media crush just as Olympic competition began.

“Whether it’s pre-competition press conferences or organized interview opportunities post-competition, we go to great lengths to facilitate the needs of the non-rights holders,” said USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel. “It takes planning, coordination and cooperation, but we get it done, and we do so in a manner that balances the needs and interests of everyone.”

The USOC said it made all U.S. medalists available to non-rights-holding broadcasters via press conferences and studio visits, and it held 32 press conferences for non-rights holders before events with athletes such as Tyson Gay and Serena Williams.

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