Bird’s Nest Soup

For 17 days beginning on Aug. 8, NBC’s on-air talent will be taping stand-ups against a narrative backdrop of dirty air, political unrest and press censorship. But the sports—at least, a lot of them, and for most American audiences—will be broadcast live.

As a sporting event, it will be extraordinary. Though there is a Summer Olympics every four years, this year’s edition promises unique drama: China has resolved to mark its turn as host nation by displacing the United States at the top of the gold medal table, and there is every reason to believe they’ll do it.

From the standpoint of great international rivalries, it’s reminiscent of America vs. the Soviet bloc: the superpowers, fighting a proxy battle with javelins and two-man sculls across a massive political and cultural divide.

But these games are also going to provide the American media an opportunity—or an obligation, depending on the business prerogatives of the outlet—to say serious things about serious topics, even at risk of running afoul a host nation with a low level of tolerance for hostile press.

“We pushed hard to send a good number of people to the games,” said New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly, “and it’s about so much more than the sports here.”

“Beijing is treating the Olympics as a showcase of a world power,” Times executive editor Bill Keller wrote in an e-mail to The Observer. “We’re treating it as a showcase for great journalism.”

These Beijing Olympic Games present the sort of dilemma that assignment editors and correspondents wait their whole lives to confront. Eleven thousand athletes; an opening ceremony with 15,000 performers. The new world superpower onstage, open as never before to Western media; 20,000-plus credentialed reporters (according to official reports in China) telling the story.

A massive feat of organization for the Chinese government, for the International Olympic Committee—and for the news agencies that have come to China to cover the Games.

“One day, they’ll e-mail us and ask for certain information, and the next day, after we raised a question as to why, then it changes,” said Mr. Jolly, the Times sports editor. “This is mostly silly stuff—like requests for photos for credentials because there was a blue background instead of a white background. That literally happened. Actually to a few different people. Those sorts of things happened.”

“There’s a combination of the language difficulties and the time difference and the fact that we’re dealing with government that’s not used to press freedoms,” he said.

But on the other hand, there is China’s calculation that certain compromises with Western sensibilities about the media will be necessary if they’re going to get what they need out of these Olympics. It’s a development Joe Kahn, The Times’ deputy foreign editor who won a Pulitzer Prize with Jim Yardley for his coverage of the country, has been watching closely.

“Journalists will write about the beauty of the architecture in Beijing—we’ve had some of that. Obviously, there will be the other side—I don’t think they’re expecting positive coverage. There are enough reporters in Beijing that they will get a mix and on the whole, and China has made the calculation that generally means more good than bad.”

Judging from Mr. Ebersol’s account of his network’s coverage, it’s working.

“China’s new to the world in terms of openness,” he said. “It’s really a whole new thing for them.”

He described a “constant dialogue” between his network and the Chinese government about coverage of the Olympics. (That dialogue is probably helped along by the fact that NBC’s corporate parent, General Electric, is a sponsor of the Olympics, for which it had to pay $900 million for its exclusive American broadcast.)

“We clearly will be able to come out of Tiananmen Square for the Games. I understand with the amount of events, there’s going to be a runaround [concerning] Tiananmen Square, why it’s not going to be available 24 hours a day. The six or seven hours that they’re starting off with right now, it’s a starting point. Would we like more on a whole lot of different levels? Of course we would, but we continue to dialogue with them.”

But which way will that “dialogue” move the counter? On Aug. 5, three days before the Olympics are to start, sports columnist Harvey Araton, who is covering his tenth Olympics, wrote a post on The Times’ Olympics blog.

On his press bus, an official informed his group that a new policy was in place for reporters who wished to conduct interviews on Tiananmen Square.

“Something about a day’s advance notice, an application, a sanctioning office with a fax machine,” he wrote. “Knowing that reporters from the New York Times staff had already visited the Square the last two days and had encountered little difficulty in getting people to talk, I asked how new the policy was: Brand new or created-specifically-for-our-group new.”

The official’s answer: “Two days, I think.”

tscocca@observer.com, jkoblin@observer.com, fgillette@observer.com

Bird’s Nest Soup