Reliving the Games

David Rudisha of Kenya winning the Men's 800m final at the London Olympic Games (frame grab from BBC coverage)
David Rudisha of Kenya winning the Men’s 800m final at the London Olympic Games (frame grab from BBC coverage)

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.

Your blogger is in there somewhere, watching the men's table tennis
Your blogger is in there somewhere, watching the men’s table tennis

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.



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7 thoughts on “Reliving the Games

  1. And so it came to pass – it’s 13 January 2013, and the full London 2012 video archive has disappeared from the BBC Sports site – and, not too surprisingly, it has gone from the Eurovision site as well. Only the highlights remain. Inevitable, but a huge shame.

  2. Why cannot the recorded archive of 2012 be made availbale for download?
    Otherwise, what is it all for?
    Presumably to sit on a server somewhere waiting to be erased to make room for 2016
    I have the BBC 5 DVD set but they only scratch the surface
    as the archive must be huge
    Some are available on Youtube, but have been copy protected
    The copywright “owners” could host a website with all the content
    from all the day by day channels
    They could even charge a (modest) subscription if they are feeling avaricious
    Otherwise, the wonders of London 2012 will be lost forever
    The TV usage of the web was truly 21st century
    but now that seems to have all been forgotten

  3. I agree. There is this huge video archive that has been created of London 2012, probably more extensive than any Olympic Games before now, and most of it has now been withdrawn. There is a substantial cost involved in hosting several thousand hours of video, but not astronomical for a large international organisation like the IOC which has grown immensely rich on the back on the sale of TV rights. There would surely be a business case for service that offered highlights for free and access to the full archive on a subscription model (streaming, not download), and still protect their footage sales market (managed through the Olympic Television Archive Bureau).

    A great shame.

    1. Do you know who these comments should be directed at?
      Several months ago, I tried BBC Sports but got the brush off with the easy response “we don’t own the copywright”
      Well someone must!
      & what footage sale market do you refer to?
      How do we get access?
      I want to download as I have a fast internet connection (Virgin 100Mb)
      but streaming hi-def still produces some glitches



  4. BBC Sports gave you the correct answer – they don’t own the copyright. The vast majority of the 2012 Olympic footage was not shot by them but by Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), as I explain in my post. The BBC just licensed it for a period and added their own studio shots. So the rights lie with the International Olympic Committee, which owns OBS. Footage sales rights, which is a separate business i.e. clip sales to broadcasters, are managed by another IOC offshoot, the Olympic Television Archive Bureau (OTAB).

    No rights owner is going to make such content freely available for download – it’s too valuable.

    1. I would have thought that the value would be increased if the material was more available
      I suppose we have to accept that the wonders of London 2012 will disappear forever

  5. Many would agree with you that the more you expose such content the more attractive it becomes to commercial interests as well as the public. Sadly not all rights owners are convinced by this. But we must have hope – and must tell the IOC what we think. If no one complains to them, why should they bother to change things?

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