For a determined curmudgeon like myself, it’s been a tough two weeks.
I admit to have been sceptical at the start of the BBC’s service – 24 satellite channels (48 if you count HD coverage separately, which those issuing the invoices do) as well as the online content. Those spot-beam transponders cost a few bob, as does the masses of bandwidth needed to stream HD footage to service millions of hits. But, for me, it’s been this breadth of available coverage of every event that’s been the outstanding achievement of the games in terms of impact on the public – after all, the vast bulk of folk didn’t get a ticket to attend, nor indeed feel the slightest inclination to apply. Gone are the days when, for example, volleyball would get a few minutes at the end of each day, and maybe a 20 minute highlights package late on a Saturday night. I’ve sat glued to the handball, actually gaining an understanding of the sport, its tactics, skills etc., through being able to watch the whole tournament in its entirety. That sort of blanket coverage has allowed people to get genuinely interested in particular sports and events, and a fraction of them (myself included) to take things further and investigate joining a local club, going along to a come-and-try session, and so on. You can’t get that interested in an activity when the very nature of previous television coverage meant there wasn’t sufficient time to suck you in.
But the implication of this is that it mattered not a jot where in the physical world the Olympics were held. The uplinks, downlinks, servers, graphics, interactive services may just as well have come from Paris as from London.§ The same pictures we were watching from the arenas were the same pictures being shown around the world, broadcast via the IOC’s own broadcast service (with the slight exception of major events like Athletics, where the BBC had some extra cameras following the Brits). Would Mo Farah’s incredible double gold have been any less impressive had there been a “Paris 2012” hoarding behind him on the finishing straight, instead of the one we saw? Would French crowds have waved any less red, white and blue and been less raucous and atmosphere-providing? To say ‘yes’ is to both minimise the outstanding achievements of thousands of athletes and to rely on a simplistic, ‘we are best’ perception of British audiences.
Of course it matters to an extent that the Olympics physically took place in the UK. We instinctively feel that wee bit more involved when what we’re seeing on our LCDs is in a place most of us are familiar with, sharing a language and cultural ephemera. But if “minority” sports like weightlifting, handball, volleyball etc. take off over the next couple of years – and make no mistake, the only way “legacy” becomes a positive reality is if these low-cost, accessible sports garner wider participation, not the hyper-equipped stuff like rowing, canoeing etc. – the trigger won’t have been banners reading “London 2012” behind the finest athletes on the globe. It’ll be because technology allows us and the broadcasters to access utterly unprecedented coverage, in high-definition, and expose ourselves hour after hour to the breadth of talent and competition that the Olympics are supposed to be about.
§ – Pedant Corner: having uplinks from Paris as opposed to fibre connections from Olympic Park would add a few tenths of a second of a delay. But this would be of interest only to High Frequency Traders of judo futures.
PS – I couldn’t let an Olympic post go by without mentioning my elected representative in the mother of parliaments, Mr Tom Harris. For a gentleman who in previous years has frequently proclaimed his ignorance and non-interest in sport (fair enough), he seems to have suddenly acquired a keen eye for the games and their political implications, taking to Twitter to berate those who have asked legitimate questions of the fiscal implications of a £10 billion (and counting) river of investment into a 2.5km² site, and calling into question their reasons for doing so. I do hope Mr Harris is as keen a spectator of elite sporting activity come November, when the cycling World Cup comes to Glasgow for the first time. He’d make a great derny rider in the keirin.