Happy returns to less crowded MPC

JAMES TONEY reports from Beijing on the similarities – and the differences – in covering the Paralympics and the Olympics

After a quick pit-stop for laundry, laptop exchange and expenses dump, it’s back to Beijing for a second Tour of Duty.

Fears that organisers would start downgrading their facilities in the transition from Olympic to Paralympic are soon quelled. The Main Press Centre remains staffed by sea of helpful smiles, transport still runs like clockwork and the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube are virtual capacities for every session.

The Olympic rings may have been replaced by the Paralympic squiggles but you can still get a free massage, haircut or work out in the gym (how many of us really managed that?).

However, perhaps the diminished number of British media here was the reason why the press bar was closed early this week due to a lack of custom.

There are obviously less media at the Paralympics and that dank and musty smell that, by the end of the Olympics, hung over certain areas of the main press workroom seems to have thankfully evaporated.

But where are the Americans? A few weeks ago NBC were camped out with battalions of foot soldiers, while AP and United States papers were credentialed in droves. But this is an event largely ignored across the Atlantic.

The BBC has given the Paralympics an unprecedented level of coverage, probably with an eye towards 2012, but US viewers will get a brief highlights show sometime in October. Already, Chicago’s rivals to stage the 2016 Games are making noises about a lack of American commitment to the Paralympic side of their bid.

But the best thing about being back is the mixed zones – a brutal bear pit of sweaty bodies and frayed tempers during the Olympics, they’ve been transformed into an oasis of professional calm.

Want five minutes with Boccia silver medallist Nigel Murray? No problems, have 10.

At the Paralympics, I have yet to conduct an interview with my arm extended over three colleagues, and my nose up someone’s armpit – unable to hear what’s being said but just hoping my Dictaphone picks it up.

There are many lessons London can learn from Beijing’s media facilities – some access to daylight for those colleagues trapped in the MPC from dawn to dusk being just one.

As an agency we spent nearly £1,500 on broadband internet access for our reporters at both Games – which, I’m told, is more than we spend on providing internet access to both our offices in London and Manchester for an entire year.

No one from BOCOG could explain how broadband access cost approximately £250 during the Olympics but only £100 during the Paralympics – or why there was no discount for reporters covering both events.

Wimbledon might lead the way in providing this service free of charge but the Olympics are not alone in coining it in – golf’s Open Championship’s rate card fees are equally as extortionate.

At the Winter Olympics in Turin the cost for two weeks wireless access was just under £60 – inflation might be on the rise but you can see a worrying trend developing.

We’ve got half the resource covering the Paralympics that we had at the Olympics, and the workload is still demanding. We’ve provided more than 60 regional newspapers with their coverage from both events and will have filed nearly 1,000 stories by the time the flame is extinguished.

The bad case of Olympic fever that swept through our editors during August might have improved for two weeks rest but it is reassuring to see the coverage they’ve been giving to these Paralympics. The British Paralympic Association’s press team has been a great assistance with a helpful news service, run by Matthew Brown, valuable in keeping everyone up to date with the 19 sports that they aren’t covering.

It’s easy to be condescending when talking and covering the Paralympics. These are elite athletes in their own right and don’t want to spend every interview talking about the hardships they’ve overcome. But Chinese television – when can a state-controlled broadcaster have been more appropriately named than CCTV? – is doing its best with cringeworthy coverage.

It was a CCTV reporter who asked Natalie du Toit, during the Olympic open water swimming: “Natalie, how much faster could you have gone with two legs?”

In Beijing, there is an estimated 1 million disabled people, across China 80 million, and deep-seated prejudices have long made their unseen lives more difficult.

A few new wheelchair ramps and the lifting of a Beijing ban on guide dogs during the Olympics and Paralympics won’t really alter that, but if 11 days of Paralympic sport changes China’s perceptions, then this event could have longer lasting significance for a huge number of Chinese than the Olympics that preceded it.

More Beijing perspectives
Click to read the views of leading journalists

Matthew Brown

Leo Mason

John Goodbody

Matthew Engel

Andrew Gilligan

Patrick Collins

James Toney is managing editor of Sportsbeat, the national agency that provided its Olympic and Paralympic coverage to more than 60 newspapers including the Birmingham Mail, Northern Echo, Edinburgh Evening News, The Herald, Coventry Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday and the Welsh Daily Post and reached a combination circulation of more than 75 million.

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