Sport and Society

17 September 2012

Broadcasting the Olympics: A Peep Behind the Cameras

Simone Bacchini writes:

So the Games are over. Bye-bye London; Rio, here we come. By now, most people will agree: both the Olympics and the Paralympics have been an astounding success. They came, they won, we watched.

Although millions of tickets were sold, most of us watched the Games from the comfort of our homes. A lot has been said and written about what happened in front of TV and computer screens in Britain and across the world. London 2012 was undoubtedly a sporting triumph but as well as the Usain Bolts, Oscar Pistoriuses and Mo Farahs, the great winner of the "emperor of mega-events" was the broadcasting media.

What we watched on screens and what some of us saw at the Olympic Park was astounding but it was just the surface. To put on a good show is – among other things – to draw the spectator into an alternative world that she can enjoy, almost oblivious to all the preparation and machinery necessary to make it happen. Behind the astonishing performance of an athlete, there are hours of training as well as scientific research on aspects such as physiology, and physics. Similarly, behind every minute of broadcasting there are literally thousands of hours of planning and of researching new technologies. When we talk about the ‘legacy’ of London 2012, we ought to keep in mind that it will not only involve young people taking up sport.

Last week, here at the British Library we were given a rare opportunity to go behind the scenes of what broadcasting the Olympics has meant. And it was fascinating; the spectacle behind the spectacle. Dave Gordon, Head of Major Events at BBC Sport since 2001, gave a rare insight into all the work that made following the Olympics possible.

To begin with, it was astonishing to learn the amount of preparation that went into broadcasting London 2012. Soon after it was announced that London would bid to host the Games, the BBC began to plan what it would cover, and how. It was decided that coverage would extend beyond sporting events to include cultural ones. In a sort of game of mirrors, the Games became a catalyst to showcase BBC products and they, in turn, became occasions to focus attention onto the forthcoming Games.

Drama was enlisted to entertain viewers and inform them on Olympic and Paralympic-related issues. So, although it was Channel four that had won the rights to broadcast the Paralympics, the BBC commissioned and aired The Best of Men, a one-episode dramatisation of the origins of the modern Paralympics in the work of Dr Gutmann, at Stoke Mandeville hospital. It was Dr Guttmann’s introduction of sport into the rehabilitation programme of wounded soldiers that led directly to ‘the most successful Paralympics’ in London, this year. Similarly, Bert and Dickie – which dramatised the accomplishments of the two rowers Bert Bushnell and Dickie Burnell – was an opportunity for the public to learn more about rowing as well as the 1948 ‘austerity Olympics’. One of the most successful pre-Games events, the torch-relay – which truly gripped the Nation – made it into BBC One’s best-known soap opera: Eastenders.

But when the real show began, the BBC spared no efforts. All of its channels were enlisted, at one point or another, to fulfil the promise that every minute of every sport would be, for the first time ever, broadcast. That meant, among other things, finding commentators knowledgeable enough to assist the viewing public in following and actually understanding sports which are relative obscure.

Digital technology did not – of course – begin with the Olympics, but it was certainly used to enhance the experience. The same applies to High Definition viewing as well as Super HI-Vision (SHV). SHV has sixteen times as many pixels as High Definition; this makes a picture with 7680 pixels across by 4320 pixels down. SHV was developed by NHK, the Japanese national broadcaster. Although NHK had used the technology before, London 2012 has been the biggest operation so far. Apparently, it gave an amazing viewing experience and its use during the Olympics is likely to determine how it will develop in the future.

Learning what broadcasting the Games entailed was fascinating. To all those present, it was clear that it required a monumental effort on the part of very many people. Unlike the athletes’ their names may never be known by the general public. Their achievements, however, will be part of the legacy of London 2012 and are likely to inspire a generation too, maybe not to run on a track but just to sit behind a TV camera. And that’s legacy just the same.

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