One of the marvels of the Olympic Games of 2012 was the ubiquity of the video coverage. No more was there the experience of Olympic games of years past, when a single television channel covered as much as it could. The BBC delivered 2,400 hours of video over the seventeen days of the Games across up to twenty-four channels. You could watch any sport available, throughout the day, and this total immersion in a public event clearly played a hugely important part in the transformative effect that the Games had on British life at the time. We were completely absorbed in live dramas of sporting endeavour, in the triumphs and disasters, not selected for us but making us the selectors. We became active spectators, our own schedulers and programmers. The exhilaration of those times to a significant degree must have derived from the way in which video – through TV, PCs and mobile platforms – brought everyone together, focussing on the one, multifaceted and uplifting story.
A further marvel was how this vast video archive stayed available once the events were over. The entirety of Games, effectively, remained accessible to anyone in the UK through BBC Sport’s video pages. Nor did such access stop once the Games were over. The entire video archive has continued to be available via the BBC site: every sport, from every venue, for every hour that the BBC was able to provide coverage across those twenty-four channels. To sustain such an archive does not come cheap, nor will the BBC have been able to negotiate an in perpetuity access licence with the International Olympic Committee, which owns all coverage of the Games, the majority of which was shot by its own company, Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), and merely licensed and transmitted by the BBC. So it is that the Olympic video archive is to be taken down on January 13th, giving you two more weeks in which to catch up on the Game in their comprehensive and unedited glory (including the opening and closing ceremonies).
There is another site with an equally extensive Olympic video archive, which currently remains active. The EBU/Eurovision site Eurovision Sports Live is offering all video shot by OBS during the Games (reportedly 9,000 hours), and while access to the BBC site is restricted to UK users only, the Eurovision site is available to all member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. As with the BBC site, you can browse by sport, with seemingly every event covered (see yours truly in the audience at 09:37:45 on 28 July, Table Tennis, Men’s singles, first round), including pre-event footage, which as a connoisseur of video footage where nothing much happens at all I find particularly fascinating. The coverage of the opening ceremony, for example, takes some twenty-five minutes before the event itself starts, during which we get hypnotic, incidental shots of the stadium and a marvellous helicopter journey across London to the Olympic stadium. The site also has profiles of some individual European athletes, and an extensive short features section, which includes (briefly) the dress rehearsal of the opening ceremony, reports on the torch relay, tours of individual venues, and even a guide to the British pub.
How long will this wonderful archive stay online? The site doesn’t say, and I’ve not been able to track down the information elsewhere. But don’t suppose that it will stay online for much longer – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if were to disappear at the same time as the BBC’s site, January 13th. Catch it while you can. (Other territories have their own video archives, by the way – for the USA there is NBC’s Olympic site, available only to US viewers, though it is highlights packages only, not the full record)
And how about the Paralympics, every bits as immersive and engrossing as the Olympics as a viewing experience? Channel 4 couldn’t offer as many channels as did the BBC, but it still managed to enthrall the nation all over again (to the extent that I remember worrying that it might have eclipsed memories of the Olympics themselves). There is a Paralympics video site though it doesn’t have the same archive of every event as originally videoed as we get for the Olympics. Instead there are videos of key moments, GB medal winners, athletes diaries and so forth.
For those who would rather have their memories served up in more digestible form, there are DVDs and Blu-Rays of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The BBC’s 5-disc set London 2012 Olympic Games is probably done about as well as it could be. It includes the full opening ceremony in a Danny Boyle re-edit, so you see some shots that were not included in the original broadcast (and you can cut out the BBC commentary), the woeful closing ceremony, and extensive coverage of events themselves re-hashed from the live programmes and generously edited so that you do get something of a sense of being there and not just an extended highlights package. It’s not the DVD package for everyone, as it focusses relentlessly on the British achievements, as does the similarly chauvinistic DVD set on the Paralympic Games, which likewise presents the sporting events alongside the full opening and closing ceremonies, though a little more functionally than the BBC’s offering (but it does boast the superb Meet the Superhumans promo which was one of the video triumphs of the Summer). One cannot expect a national broadcaster to be impartial, of course, and sport without partiality is a dull affair (we must have someone to cheer), but posterity may look on such records with a little frustration, seeing so many stories lost because they were not British.
Trailer for the official Olympic film First
Certainly the IOC would prefer that we look on the achievements of all nations, and not just winners but those who simply took part. The IOC is behind the official film of the Olympic Games, First, which is structured around the experiences of twelve athletes. The director Caroline Rowland made some inspired decisions when it came to picking the athletes for filming: among them were David Rudisha, the Kenyan 800m runner whose world record-breaking achievement was arguably the athletic highlight of the Games; Chad le Clos, the South African swimmer whose exuberant father became a star in his own right; and Ireland’s all-conquering and raucously-supported boxer Katie Taylor. I found First to be a bit of a muddle, trying as it does to combine sports coverage, its own beautifully composed oblique or behind-the-scenes footage (though you sense that her camera team weren’t always granted the best positions), interviews, voiceovers and intrusive pop music. Ironically First is at its best when it shows us those who did not come first. Several of the athletes Rowland chose to follow did not find the success to match their dreams, and the words of sorrow and bowed heads after years of effort are brutally ended in a few minutes of competition make for the film’s most eloquent moments. A better title might have made for a better film.
Rowland is CEO of New Moon Television, the corporate agency that made the original 2004 London bid film, Sport at Heart. She’s the third women director to make an official Olympic film, after Leni Reifenstahl (1936) and Mai Zetterling (one of eight directors of Visions of Eight, which records the 1972 Games). The tradition of an official feature-length film of the Games goes back to Paris 1924, though there were arrangement with film companies and the local Olympic organising committees going back to 1908. The idea of an official film as a work of art, exemplifying the Olympic virtues while documenting the sport properly began with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1938), still the greatest of Olympic films – or maybe equal greatest with Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant Tokyo Olympiad (1965).
Even after television from the 1950s onwards completely overhauled how the Olympic Games could be experienced, and financed, the idea of an official film has persisted as a necessary statement. In recent years the director-led idea of an art film has been supplanted by the functional, corporatised records of the late Bud Greenspan, who from 1984 effectively became the Olympic movement’s filmographer-of-choice. First represents a wish to move on, and its concentration on athletes and a view from within and beyond the Games is a good one (though interestingly Greenspan, who died in 2010, was originally slated to direct First). But its taste for the emotional, and the heavy reliance on pop music, are symptomatic of the filmmaking vices of our times, and are likely to date the film rapidly. I’d like the next Olympic film to focus not on the athletes but on the audience. It’s we who make the Games, they keep on telling us, but we are seldom seen except as a mass in the stadium making the required noise at the right times. A film that saw the Games through the eyes of those who came to see it could be a revelation, a real step forward.
But for me the greater work is that entire video archive, and the privilege we have to experience it all. Of course, with 2,400 hours and only 14 days left (on the BBC site at least), that’s 171 hours per day, so no one’s going to be able to experience it all, but if you go without sleep you could experience 14% of it. Best to be selective, but certainly best also to see something of it while you can. It will then slip back into the archives and become the preserve of the select. For the time being, it all belongs to all of us.
- The BBC Sport site’s London 2012 video archive includes every sport broadcast by the BBC, the opening and closing ceremonies and Games review, with the main archive available until 13 January 2013.
- The EBU’s Eurovision Sports Live site has a similarly extensive video archive of the Olympic Games, but does not give a closing date.
- The BBC Sport Editors’ blog has an eye-opening account of the extent of the video coverage of the Olympic Games, with useful viewing figure stats.
- Channel 4 offers a selective video archive of highlights from the Paralympics.
- Patrick Russell at the BFI surveys the promotional films made by New Moon Television, including the bid film which helped secure the 2012 Olympic Games for London.
- On my now defunct Bioscope blog there’s an account of Olympic films made 1900-1928
- The Olympic Broadcasting Services site has a handy history of televising the Olympic Games from 1936 onwards
- Olympics 2012:Through the Lens is an uplifting BBC programme on the Games from the commentators’ point of view, available on iPlayer until 5 January.