When Worlds Collide #26: Olympics on TV – How the World is One!

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 29 July 2012

London 2012 Opening Ceremony: Tinsel Town goes to Olympia


By the time you read this, London Olympics 2012 would have started with an opening ceremony showcasing the best of Britain. Themed as ‘Isles of Wonder’, it was put together under the overall direction of Oscar award winning British filmmaker Danny Boyle (who directed Slumdog Millionaire).

Four years ago, the Chinese film director, producer and writer Zhang Yimou was in charge of the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics.

Such mixing of sports and show biz is an indicator of how much is at stake. Every host city tries to outdo previous ones in staging an event that combines sportsmanship, performing arts and visual wizardry.

Those spectators who pay top-Dollar (or Pound) prices for stadium tickets are only a small part of the intended audience. Thanks to the vast outreach of television and web media, a sizable part of the world population now follows the Olympics. For Beijing 2008 it was 4.3 billion TV viewers and hundreds of millions online. London 2012 could surpass that.

Starting off in the 1890s, the moving images industry has evolved on a parallel track with the modern Olympics. So it’s not surprising that they have reinforced each other regularly for over a century. The Olympics and broadcast TV are now inseparable.

The Bioscope, a website dedicated to the early cinema, notes: “The two phenomena (Olympics and motion pictures) grew up together, in sophistication, intention and global reach. To view the films of the early Olympic Games is to witness the growth of the medium in how it captured action and form, from analysis, to (relatively) passive witness, to a medium that shaped athletic events to its own design.”

Drama in Real Life

The visual record of the first three modern Olympic Games is patchy. It was London 1908 that first made a proper moving image record of the Games. At least two companies filmed various events; British Pathé film company seems to have had exclusive access to events within the stadium. View a short (silent) collection of their historic footage at: http://tiny.cc/1908BP.

Filmmakers found human drama from the beginning. The first Olympian to leave his mark in moving images was the Italian long distance runner Dorando Pietri. He almost won the 1908 Olympic marathon, but was disqualified because he had been helped by officials after collapsing within sight of the finishing line. Silent film managed captured the suspense and agony of that moment like no photograph could. And a cinematic tradition was born…

All subsequent Olympics were filmed with varying degrees of quality and success. By Paris 1924, it became standard practice to produce a feature length documentary of the whole event. (Half a century later, those Games also provided the setting for Chariots of Fire, arguably the most evocative feature film based on the Olympics.)

Television, invented in the 1920s and turned into a broadcast medium within a decade, quickly warmed up to the Olympics. It proved to be a spectacular combination.

Live TV coverage of the Olympics can be traced back to Berlin 1936. The technology was still rudimentary, but over 70 hours of footage was broadcast locally — within Berlin and nearby Postdam — where residents watched in public viewing rooms and a few private homes. This operation used equipment from the German company Telefunken and transmitters of Berlin’s Paul Nipkow TV station.

The most enduring moving images at the Berlin Games were captured by the German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, who was commissioned by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The resulting film Olympia – running into 226 minutes in two parts, and in English, French and German – is still admired for its cinematic quality, even if it remains controversial for its political context.

Riefenstahl was both a creative and logistical genius. She perfected the techniques of using slow motion, placing cameras on rails to follow the athletes, positioning cameramen in little foxholes and trenches to get ground level views, and sending a roaming camera into the crowd to get reaction shots.

At the diving event, she filmed the competitors above the board, below the board, alongside them as well as underwater – resulting in one of the most stunning sporting sequences ever composed.

Real Time Coverage

As communications technology advanced, people wanted to follow the Olympics as events unfolded. Real time media coverage of the Games, on radio and TV, came of age in London 1948.

“The broadcasting and televising of the Olympiad will be the biggest operation of its kind that the BBC has ever undertaken,” said the British Broadcasting Corporation’s official chronicler, Radio Times, on 23 July 1948, less than a week before the opening. Over 500,000 British viewers, most residing within a 50-mile radius of London, watched the Games on TV.

British sports journalist Brendan Gallagher, in his The Games: Britain’s Olympic and Paralympic Journey to London 2012, notes: “After six years of conflict there was a real thirst for updated and, if possible, live information – delivering the story was key to the Games’ success. It was also part of its legacy; after London 1948 the media landscape of the Olympic Games had totally changed.”

But it took time and effort to resolve some sticky issues in technology and rights. The Helsinki 1952 Games were only broadcast on radio. Melbourne 1956 TV broadcasts were limited to Australia because overseas broadcasters declined to pay a rights fee for the TV feed.

By Rome 1960, this attitude changed and many broadcasters gladly paid such fees; the organizing committee collected a total of US Dollars 1.2 million. Today, the rights are worth billions of dollars. (In July 2011, the US broadcast network NBC signed a USD 4.38 billion contract with the IOC to broadcast the 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020 Olympics, the most expensive TV rights deal in Olympic history.)


Global Family at Olympics

Worldwide live coverage of the Olympics became possible only when geosynchronous communications satellites, first envisaged by Arthur C Clarke in 1945, entered service by the early 1960s. The American-built Syncom 3 satellite was launched just in time for Tokyo 1964 Games making it the first to be televised globally.

Separate industries that evolved over time – motion pictures, broadcasting, computer electronics and communications satellites –converged to create what Clarke once called the “tele-family of humanity”.

Nothing unifies that Global Family like live broadcast TV, despite the steady rise of the web and social media. As the IOC acknowledges, broadcast is the principal driver of sponsors and funding for the Olympic Movement. Such visibility has intangible benefits too: sustaining the global popularity of the Games and promoting the timeless Olympic values.

IOC tries to balance revenue and outreach. Its guiding principle is clear in the Olympic Charter: “The IOC takes all necessary steps in order to ensure the fullest coverage by the different media and the widest possible audience in the world for the Olympic Games.”

According to media reports, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka cited this principle on 23 July 2012 when upholding the right of a privately owned broadcast network to telecast the London Olympics 2012 on TV.

MTV Channel (Pvt) Ltd and MBC Network (Pvt) Ltd had appealed against an earlier decision from a lower court that granted exclusivity to the state channel Rupavahini. The apex court accepted the argument by the private network’s lawyers that no single channel could possibly carry the approximately 3,000 programming hours of Olympics coverage expected from London over 16 days.

With over 10,500 sportsmen and sportswomen from 205 territories competing in a total of 26 sports and 39 disciplines, there should be plenty of drama for everyone in this greatest show on Earth.

We have every excuse to become couch potatoes for two weeks – all in the name of sport!

For a detailed discussion of the early cinema and the Olympics, see: http://tiny.cc/SilOly

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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