ANALYSIS: PR challenges Olympic heights for winter wins - The scale of the PR challenge to generate interest in the Winter Olympics cannot be overstated. But for those making the effort it is worthwhile, says Peter Simpson

Despite security concerns after 11 September, together with corruption allegations against members of the International Olympic Committee, the 2002 Salt Lake City winter games offer fertile ground for sports PROs. Images of gallant medalists are beamed around the world, opening up countless sponsorship and branding opportunities.

But UK PROs might be forgiven for viewing the games as nothing more than a featureless landscape.

As it happens, the 50 athletes in Team GB are capable of achieving the nation's best medal haul at a Winter Olympics since World War II - but selling an apathetic public the idea that only three modest medals will set a new record is tough.

Poor winter sports form is perhaps why such indifference exists among UK sports fans. This ennui, born of hopelessness, has spread to the media: many in the national media have not even bothered to send staff to cover the games.

For the 2000 Sydney games, 215 UK reporters and press photographers showed up - the PR potential was rosy with several athletes heading for the podium.

By contrast in Utah, of the 20,000 accredited and non-accredited reporters covering the games, only 28 are print journalists working for British publications.

Even the BBC - which broadcast 500 hours of Sydney - has cut its winter coverage to just 90 hours and most late at night on BBC2.

Plucky losers from the Eddie the Eagle school of failure appear to be in short supply, but there is keen anticipation at London's Pitch PR.

The agency's most important current client is Alex Coomber, the UK and world skeleton bob-sled champion - Britain's best hope of gold (or indeed any medal) in Utah.

Pitch PR director Henry Chappell has more than 200 Coomber cuttings from the pre-games hype. Most carry the now infamous photo of his client, in a Union Jack helmet, hurtling towards the camera at break-neck speed.

But Chappell admits the limits of this PR window, saying: 'Alex has to win for us to capitalise. Should she start competing for a medal of any colour, the PR opportunities emerge.'

Coomber's two minutes of skeleton bob-sled daring was due to be shown live as PRWeek went to press.

Olympic success ensures niche winter sports receive an unprecedented popularity boost from both public and corporate interests; sailing and rowing are no longer viewed as obscure hobbies following the success of 2000 Olympians Ben Ainslie and Steve Redgrave.

'Look what yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur did for sailing. But let's be realistic about British Olympic athletes. Some do have commercial value, but they are not Premiership football stars,' comments Philip Pope, press spokesman for the British Olympic Association and Team GB.

'In comparison with other years, we have successfully educated people about the sports and the winter games. Before, the British public only became interested in winter sports once snow started falling in the south of England. People are more aware, and we do well to compete alongside many Alpine nations,' he says.

'We wanted to create genuine expectation. We didn't want to set levels of expectations too high.

We wanted the media and the public to know what to expect,' Pope adds.

This strategy of pre-empted damage limitation appears to be working well, as most coverage is buried in the back pages or screened in the twilight zone of the TV scheduling.

Hill & Knowlton's sports marketing and sponsorship division senior associate director Theo Chapman says that while a British medal hope would foster wide public interest, sponsors rarely rely on the performance of individual athletes to ensure exposure for their brand: 'Most acquire a long association with the Olympic movement, such as Samsung and USB,'

H&K is the International Olympic Committee's global PR consultancy and Chapman has worked on the account:'Olympic PR potential lies in the popularity of winter holidays, which have made the British public more informed.

All it takes is a another Robin Cousins or Torvill and Dean to achieved mass viewing figures.'

Other British PR interests in Utah include utility giant and event sponsor ScottishPower. The company, which merged with PacifiCorp in 1999, is soaking up valuable PR through its sponsorship of the games under its Utah Power trading name.

Utah Power and PR executives have been working closely with local media partners in the run up to and during the games. Spearheading Utah Power's detailed corporate comms and PR strategy, vice-president of external comms Rachel Sherrard says: 'The amount of column inches and awareness that are available with virtually no increase in budget has been outstanding.'

Such sentiments would no doubt be echoed at Pitch PR irrespective of whether its Olympian scaled the rostrum this week.

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