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Ron Judd's Olympics Insider

Ron Judd, an Olympics junkie and Seattle Times columnist who has covered Olympic sports since 1997, will use this space to serve up news and opinion on the Summer and Winter Games -- also inviting you to chime in on Planet Earth's biggest get-together.

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April 23, 2008 5:30 PM

Straight dope from your Unofficial 2010 Olympic paper

Posted by Ron Judd

Vancouver organizers, on a sponsorship binge this week (see beer item, below), dropped word of another one today: Canwest Publishing, owner of, well, a lot of the newspapers in western Canada, has signed on as the "Official Regional Newspaper Publisher" for the 2010 Games.

What does that mean? It means the newspaper conglomerate, which owns not only the local Victoria Times-Colonist, Vancouver Sun and The Province, but also The Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Windsor Star, Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal, will get "exclusive rights in the regional newspaper publisher/product service category" for the Games of 2010, and the Canadian Olympic team through 2012, says a Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) release. The deal involves "value-in-kind allocation of print and online advertising," in Canwest papers.

Translation: The papers will presumably give up space to promote the Games, as well as produce and distribute in papers info guides dealing with ticket sales, transportation, accompanying arts and culture festivals, etc. -- and Canwest papers will be the only ones carrying this stuff.

In return for its space and delivery -- and perhaps an additional sponsor fee, not specified -- Canwest papers also will be able to call themselves official Games products, letting them in on the giant promotional gravy train that rolls into town before, during and after every Olympics.

Both sides of the deal clearly are aware of the potential blowback from people wary of media conglomerates being in bed financially with a major news generator like an Olympic Games bureaucracy. How do we know? Because they're tripping over themselves to pooh-pooh it from the get-go.

"The sponsorship is a marketing and advertising partnership and is independent of Canwest's editorial coverage of the 2010 Winter Games," VANOC states.

OK. But the fact is, we have personally seen other media organizations with contractual relationships with the International Olympic Committee, and individual nations' sports groups, given favorable treatment when it comes to event access at past Olympics. Not officially, of course. Just wink-wink, yeah, you're getting the best camera angle at figure skating because you're On Our Team.

Not that we suspect Canwest is trying to buy influence here. The company owns capable newspapers that will be the media home team for the Vancouver Games. They don't need an extra advantage. But this is bigger than a sports-page matter. The Games are a massive, multi-billion-dollar, public-policy news story, as well.

Which is why, in a city like Vancouver, where small-but-ardent anti-Olympic and anti-corporate sentiments run concurrent and strong, you wonder about perceptions of conflict of interest.

It's a version of a broader problem journalists have always faced -- and will face increasingly -- as newspapers relax the walls between advertising and news in an effort to survive. A perception of collusion can be just as damaging as the real thing; fairness resides in the mind of the beholder.

And the Olympics, remember, are financed in no small part by a public which, in this case, gets most of its news from watchdogs all attached to a single chain. If some misstep by VANOC went uncovered by Canwest papers, would anyone really believe no favors were granted by the newspaper "partners?"

This explains the careful wording of VANOC CEO John Furlong's news-release statement: "Canwest will continue with its excellence in objective editorial coverage of the Games. We are also very pleased to have their team on board to play a separate role in delivering important information about the Games to communities throughout our country."

He didn't choose the words "objective" and "separate" by accident.

So, VANOC is saying its friendly handshake with Canada's largest media conglomerate isn't an ethical problem for those newspapers. And so, not surprisingly, is the business empire on the other end of the deal.

But we wonder: Any regular folks up in B.C. -- the people footing the rather handsome bill for this show -- see it differently?

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Blogroll and links The official International Olympic Committtee site, with news releases, a searchable Olympic medals database and other archival information. Olympic news site from one of the Games' primary sponsors.
NBC Olympics columnist Alan Abrahamson's column/blog
Chicago Tribune Olympic sports writer Philip Hersh's blog U.S. Olympic Committee's athlete web site. Ed and Sheila Hula's Olympic News Service (subscription). News service with audio, video and text coverage of Olympic sports, during and between Olympics. Free, but charges for live video feed subscriptions. Beijing Organizing Committee Web site. Vancouver Organizing Committee's 2010 Winter Games site. London 2012 Summer Games site. Sochi, Russia's 2014 Winter Games site. Candidate city Chicago's summer 2016 bid committee site.
Olympic swimmer Tara Kirk's highly entertaining WCSN blog
Bellevue Olympian Scott Macartney's WCSN alpine ski-racing blog
Other WCSN Olympic athlete blogs.