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Rise, shine at the Olympics

NBC gets its prime-time swimming, gymnastics finals in 2008, but it forces them to be held in the morning in Beijing, leaving some unhappy.

October 27, 2006|Lisa Dillman | Times Staff Writer

NBC's wish of capturing morning glory at the Summer Games became reality as the International Olympic Committee on Thursday announced that all swimming finals and some gymnastics finals will be held in the morning in Beijing in 2008.

This translates into live in prime time for American viewers and a potential ratings swell for the Olympic network, which paid $3.5 billion to broadcast five Olympics, starting from 2000.

Though there is precedent -- some swimming and track-and-field finals were in the morning at Seoul in 1988 -- the scheduling change drew criticism from officials in Britain and Australia and pointed comments, pro and con, from athletes.

U.S. swim star Michael Phelps, winner of eight Olympic medals, six of them gold, in Athens in 2004, has long wanted a superior platform for his sport and said in a statement he expected some "fast swims in Beijing" and called it a "level-playing field" since the decision was made well in advance of the Games.

But three-time Olympic medalist Roland Schoeman of South Africa called the decision "unfair" to the swimmers.

"I think it's an indication of the times we live in," he told The Times in a telephone interview Thursday from his training base in Tucson. "Whereas the Olympics were founded on the ideals of fair play and fair sport, and amateurism, and now where a television station can purchase when they want the Olympic Games finals to be held, it's just really ridiculous to me.

"I don't think they were taking the swimmers into consideration at all. It's what was better for NBC and what was better for the American public, not the swimmers."

Said an NBC spokesperson: "In terms of recommendations, we and many others make recommendations to the IOC, just as we always had. And many constituent groups make recommendations for various reasons. We're pleased with the IOC announcement from Beijing that will allow the two most popular summer Olympic sports in the U.S. to be seen here mostly live."

Track-and-field finals will stay in the evening, except for the marathon. Rowing finals and the men's basketball gold medal game will be in the afternoon and diving will be in the afternoon and evening. Not all of the gymnastics will be in the morning, however. The individual apparatus events will be at night.

"This is our biggest chance to showcase who and what we are and being in prime time guarantees having as many people as possible tuned in," said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. "We believe this is one of the best ways for the Olympic movement to remain relevant to American fans."

Hein Verbruggen, head of the IOC's coordination commission for Beijing, was quoted in news reports defending the move, saying: "One speaks of one or two sports, but in the end it's about 28 sports."

But American swimmers won't be testing the new format -- finals in the morning, preliminaries at night -- at two of the biggest meets before the Olympics. The schedule is set for night finals at the World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, starting in March 2007, and a USA Swimming spokesperson said the finals would be at night for the Olympic trials in Omaha in 2008.

"It's not only the selection meet, but it's a big event for USA Swimming," said Bob Bowman, Phelps' coach, of the Omaha trials. "To preserve it as a big event, you want as many people as you can get in the stands, and that means night finals."

In July, Phelps backed the idea of morning finals. His comments came during nationals competition at Irvine.

"If you make the Olympic team and you can't come and be ready to swim in the morning, if you can't get excited to do that, give your spot to someone else," he said then.

This will mean more of an early rise for already early-rising athletes. Schoeman estimated that he would have to get up around three in the morning, if the finals were to start at 9.

"If NBC said we'll put up $100,000 for every gold medal, etc, then that's fine," Schoeman said. "If they want me to swim at 1 in the morning, then I'll swim at 1 in the morning."

Times staff writers Diane Pucin, Larry Stewart and Chicago Tribune staff writer Philip Hersh contributed to this report.

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