They are the pampered elite, the petulant children of the Olympic Games. They are spoiled, obnoxious and arrogant.

But they are also an indispensable part of Games. In fact, it is questionable whether the Games could be held without them.No, not the superstar athletes. We're talking the media.

"I cannot overstate how vitally important the media is to the success of our Games in 2002," said Shelley Thomas, vice president of communications for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee. "We recognize that most people on the planet who see and sense and experience the Olympics do it via broadcast."

And after just two days in Nagano, Gov. Mike Leavitt said the care and feeding of the media would be one of Utah's two biggest challenges in 2002.

It is the media-created image - whether it be presented in newspapers, magazines or television - that will define the entire Olympic experience for most people. And right or wrong, the image projected is often in direct proportion to how well the media's needs are met.

"We want the story to be the 2002 Games and not how the media was made to suffer," Thomas said. "That's what happened in Atlanta. That's when we realized that when an entire profession puts their ability to do their job into the hands of technology and transportation, the organizing committee must deliver or it pays a very high price."

Which is why SLOC is going to extraordinary lengths to accommodate the media's needs and wants. SLOC senior vice president Dave Johnson promised that transportation of journalists "will have the highest priority" in the planing process.

A large part of SLOC's observation of the Winter Games in Nagano is focused on how the media's needs are accommodated here. Johnson has even gone to the extent of counting the number of chairs in the Main Press Center, the hub of activity for print journalists (for the record there are 602 chairs).

In Nagano, there are about 8,500 journalists from throughout the world. In 2002 Thomas is estimating there will be about 12,000 in Salt Lake, of which 6,000 will be fully accredited and 6,000 will be feature writers and producers scouring the communities for local perspectives.

It is that latter category of reporters that has the greatest potential to define public perception about the Games. It is also those reporters who could cause Salt Lake organizers the most heartburn through negative publicity if some accommodations are not provided.

Without credentials to get onto Olympic venues and interview athletes, those reporters will be "walking the streets, feeling the heartbeat of communities and really examining how we are doing our jobs (as an Olympic host city and as Olympic organizers)," Thomas said.

SLOC is developing a strategy to deal with uncredentialed media, in particular how to get those reporters the information they need to do their feature stories. The Utah Travel Council and the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau will play a role in that as well.

Most reporters working the 1998 Winter Games give good marks to the Nagano organizers. The press facilities, consisting of massive media centers for both print and broadcast, as well as smaller press centers at each venue site, have been crowded but generally adequate.

The transportation to and from the sites has been good due to the Japanese penchant for never compromising the bus schedules. The only criticism has been that there are not enough buses during high-demand times - an inconvenience that has not proven significant.

In some cases, Nagano has gone far beyond what the media has come to expect from Olympics organizers. Rooms in the two media villages are considerably larger than most hotel accommodations here (which are about half the size of American hotel rooms). And each village is outfitted with a cafeteria, a restaurant and a bar that stays open late to accommodate the international media working different deadlines.

The media's upbeat assessment of Nagano's efforts may be a function of the fact that many, if not most, of the reporters also covered the Summer Games in Atlanta. And the experience there was so negative that any improvement is seen as a welcome relief.

In Atlanta, the problem was largely transportation. Reporters could not get to venues on time, and once the events were completed they could not get back to a press office to file their stories on deadline.

"I can't tell you how many times I have gotten on a bus and had reporters ask me if Salt Lake was going to be better than Atlanta," Thomas said. "I tell them yes, but I also tell them just because we have wide streets doesn't mean we won't have transportation problems. They seem satisfied as long as it will be better than Atlanta."

Most U.S. reporters have covered events in Salt Lake City, either World Cup events or NBA basketball, and they have high expectations for Salt Lake's ability to host the games and accommodate their various needs.

Those expectations are built in part on the fact Salt Lake will be the largest metropolitan area to ever host the Winter Games, meaning there will be more restaurants, bars and entertainment. All at a considerably lower cost than Nagano or Lillehammer or Albertville, the last three cities to host the Winter Games.

It is that lower cost - and the greater ease of getting to and from Salt Lake City - that will undoubtedly prompt news organizations around the world, particularly those in the United States, to send thousands of uncredentialed reporters to ferret out the local flavor.

"Everything's a challenge when it comes to planning for the Games," Thomas said. "But how the media perceives the Games and how they perceive the Salt Lake community is vitally important to whether or not the Games are a success."