olympics

The Olympics: Celebrating Success or Jingoism? – Stuck in Draft #2

I wrote this over a year ago, and never quite got around to publishing it. Hence it now forms part of my Stuck in Draft series.

And so another Olympics have concluded and from where I sit it has been a success.

Let me clarify that a little. Team GB has undoubtedly been successful. But there’s a much wider context when you look at the Olympics.

These include:

  • The cost to the host nation of holding the Olympics
  • The IOC
  • The wider geo-politics of the Olympics (e.g. Russia’s participation)
  • The commercialism
  • The zika virus
  • A green diving pool
  • Competing nations’ reactions

And there are many more besides.

It’s clear that hosting the Olympics is just ridiculously expensive, and it will be interesting to see what happens in upcoming Olympic cycles. Brazil probably thought it could afford the Olympics when they won in 2006, but ten years on, and the world economy had changed not least in Brazil itself.

So while state employees weren’t being paid, and poverty is endemic, millions are being spent, perhaps unnecessarily. Winning both the World Cup and Olympics in a short space of time seems one too many global sports events at the same time.

Beyond that we’ve had the spectre of empty seats in nearly every arena. We know that tickets are vastly expensive for the local population, but surely filling those seats should be a massive priority for any organising committee? Give the tickets away if need be. Surely you make some money back on over-priced snack concessions.

It’s somehow hilarious that Irish IOC member, Patrick Hickey, was arrested for ticket-touting when from several thousand miles away it seemed that availability of tickets really wasn’t a problem (with the exception of the Maracaña for the men’s football final).

And with a reported 12% of Paralympic ticket sales sold so far, there’ll be even more blue empty seats next time around. Recall that Brazil sent the fourth largest team to London in 2012 and were 7th on the medal table. Those would suggest that it’s taken seriously.

The IOC have shown themselves to be essentially unreformed. They couldn’t take decisive action against state doping carried out by Russia, leaving it to the Paralympic Committee to show who had some balls. Sadly the Paralympics are suffering a dire shortage of cash. The IOC is rolling it, but don’t expect any bailouts. “Nothing to do with us squire…”

And they treated the whistleblower of state-sponsored Russian doping, Yuliya Stepanova, with distain. Already in hiding in the US, and not allowed to compete at these games (plenty of other ex-dopers did compete), the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach actually said the following: “We are not responsible for dangers to which Ms. Stepanova may be exposed.”

So to the average Brazilian, the Olympics may or may not have been a sideshow – at least until they won the men’s football final with a Neymar penalty, or the men’s volleyball final. But that doesn’t automatically make the Olympics per se a bad thing.

The British team has done superbly, exceeding the medal total for 2012 – something that’s never previously been achieved after a home Olympics.

They finished second in the medals table (the table being unofficial, and weighted towards gold medals), notably ahead of China.

There are two key reasons for these things: lottery money and China under-performing.

Lottery money is significant. At £4m a medal, there seems to be a fairly direct correlation between Olympic success and the amount a nation invests. In the UK this is funded by state lottery run by a for-profit organisation, Camelot. Most know that when they buy a lottery ticket, they know that some of their cash goes to these athletes and their programmes.

Indeed 25% of lottery money goes to “lottery projects” of which sport gets 20% – so about 10p of every £2 ticket.

And of course, we know that the money is targeted at sports who achieve returns on investment: cycling, rowing, yachting and gymnastics for example. Medals are targeted at almost all costs. In the track cycling, many wondered why the GB team had done poorly at the World Championships in London earlier this year, but so well in Rio. The fact was that even though the World Championships were on home turf, the team had focused on peaking their performances in Rio. If that meant under-performing before then, then so be it. Funding is dependent on Olympic success and no other!

Is that the right way of doing things? Probably not. If GB is unlikely to win medals in your sport no matter what (e.g. basketball), then don’t expect any cash coming your way soon. And while it’s great that we support our athletes and allow them to train rather than hold down multiple jobs while they compete in a world that is mostly unprofessional, that doesn’t necessarily help at grass roots levels. Those pitches and swimming pools still need to be there and accessible.

The scariest single statistic I’ve read in the last few week is that 52% of children leave school unable to swim 25m unaided. That’s simply shocking.

And what about China? Well they under-performed badly, and no doubt there’ll be inquests into why. Possibilities include a natural down-shift following a home Olympics. Everyone raises their game to perform well at home, later metaphorically breathing out when the games are over. GB seems to be bucking that trend, but Tokyo 2020 will be interesting.

There’s also the changes happening in Chinese society. Olympians are bigger stars now – and that brings with it distractions when you perhaps have some money when once you didn’t.

Finally, the cat and mouse game of drugs cheats and drug detection continues. Who knows if that is a reason.

The fact that a peak audience of around 7m people watched the British women’s hockey team defeat the Netherlands on Friday night, or that 2m stayed up until nearly 2am on Sunday morning to watch Mo Farah win the 5000m, shows that the Olympics do bring us together as a nation like no other sports event.

Newspapers are full of Olympic pull-outs and “Gold Medal special editions.” Welcome home parades are being planned for Manchester and London. The BBC Sport website saw record views with 68.3m unique browsers in the UK alone, compared with 39m in 2012.

Something to do with a post-Brexit proudness? I doubt it. If anything, the Olympics gives Britons a two-week holiday from unending political turmoil.

Are we getting value for money for our Olympic success? I’d answer yes. It’s not the be all and end all of what we need to do for sport on a wider level. The broader Olympic “legacy” of 2012 does not seem to have emerged in terms of participation. But I know I’m a lot happier seeing lottery money being spent on gold medals than public money on things like useless “garden” bridges across the Thames.

Finally, is the coverage celebratory or jingoistic? BBC coverage of the Olympics was clearly skewed towards events that the GB team does well in. How else to explain primetime Taekwondo? If you’re a fan of handball or archery, you had to look to the digital channels.

But we’re probably no different to any other nation in that regard. From speaking to friends across the Atlantic, it would seem that from an NBC perspective, there were no other nations aside from the US competing in any event! Then again, with so many US medalists, which you’d expect US TV to cover, that wouldn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.

At least we don’t get the X-Factor style sob-stories attached to every single athlete. How they overcome adversity to get to these games. Etc etc etc.

If I had a criticism, it would be a few too many montages that ran way too long, and were aired way too many times. And when commentators cross the line and become fans, that becomes awkward. That’s especially the case where they’re essentially hoping the non-British competitors make a mistake and get that dive wrong, or fail to clear that fence.

It’s always a problem when many of the commentators are either ex-competitors, and quite often friends of the athletes.

And there’s often too much expectation shown. Despite their quality, we can never be certain in events like Track Cycling or the 10,000m that our guy or gal is going to deliver the goods. Yet they sometimes were presented as nailed on certainties, and that’s simply not the case.

One other thing from a UK perspective.

Can’t we just shift Eastenders to BBC2 for a couple of weeks? It would stop a lot of needless channel changing. Stick the Ten O’Clock news there too. Then there wouldn’t be complaints about the news being delayed (complaints from people who for some reason had access to BBC 1 but curiously not the BBC News Channel, which was happily broadcasting the news at 10pm each night).

Sadly, I’m not sure that this will be an issue in four years’ time since the timings of the games will mean nothing live in peak, and it’s unclear how much digital coverage the BBC will be able to provide under their deal with Discovery/Eurosport.

Discovery Buys The Olympics In Europe

Well here’s something a little unexpected. Discovery has swooped in and bought exclusive Olympic rights across Europe for €1.3 billion for the years 2018-2024.

In the UK, the BBC already had a deal in place that stretched out until the 2020 summer games in Tokyo, as does France TV. But the BBC would not have automatic coverage of the 2022 winter games or the 2024 summer games.

Discovery bought Eurosport last year, and this potentially gives them something big to play with. But there are some interesting questions to be asked about the whole deal.

First of all, the UK, like some other European nations, has “Listed Events” – sporting events that are considered so important that they’re protected. “The Olympic Games” falls into Category A in its entirety, which means it must be made freely available live to UK audiences. As it stands, the only broadcasters that meet that requirement are BBC1, BBC2, ITV, C4 and Channel 5 (not all Freeview muxes cover the whole of the UK. Look out for some annoyed football fans who won’t be able to see BT Sport Showcase on Freeview, for example).

The UK isn’t alone – according to an Ofcom document, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy all also have listed events that include at least some of the Olympics.

While legislation might have changed by 2022, it should be noted that the most recent attempt to amend it, in 2009, was in the ignored by government.

In any case, Discovery’s CEO David Daslav says that events might be sub-licenced to the BBC (or another broadcaster one imagines).

What’ll be interesting to learn is the detail of the IOC’s agreement.

There are some particular lines in the press release to warrant examination:

“In a world of increasingly “anytime, anywhere” viewing, the Olympic Games are an unparalleled live event that aggregate enormous audiences and capture the world’s attention in a way that continues to become more valuable for marketers, distributors and fans.”

Well it’s good to know fans come first…

“This agreement ensures comprehensive coverage of the Olympic Games across Europe, including the guarantee to provide extensive free-to-air television coverage in all territories.”

That doesn’t say “live.” And it’s not clear how it’ll be delivered.

UK viewers were perhaps spoilt in 2012, when coverage was as complete as possible anywhere on the planet – every minute of every event streamed live, and on platforms like Sky Digital and Freesat, all in HD, free of charge. Beyond that, it was all on iPlayer too. Will that be bettered? The bar is pretty high already.

“Consistent with IOC and local market requirements, Discovery has committed to broadcasting a minimum of 200 hours of the Olympic Games and 100 hours of the Olympic Winter Games on free-to-air television during the Games period. Discovery will sub-license a portion of the rights in many markets across Europe.”

To put that in perspective, in the UK, viewers had 2,500 hours of coverage in 2012.

“This new partnership is an exciting win for European sports fans as we will deliver record amounts of content across platforms to ensure the Olympic flame burns bright all year long.”

It’s not really a “win” if it costs European sports fans more than it currently does.

Then there’s the Olympic Charter. Section 48.1 says:

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.

That would seem to infer that delivery of the Olympics via Discovery/Eurosport will need to at least match what is currently being delivered. It’ll be interesting to see how that works in the UK. Judging by the line above, it seems that 200 hours of coverage of the summer games is deemed enough.

A big part of this deal is that Discovery will activity promote the IOC’s planned Olympic TV channel – hence the line about “all year long.”

Although quite what this will show between games is still unclear. Rights to events of any value tend to be bought by other pay-TV sports channels or free-to-air broadcasters. And repeats of a dressage event from two years ago are of relatively little interest (Not that this stops Skys Sports F1 filling hours of its schedule with repeats. The F1 season is at least annual, and runs for much of the year).

One final thought. If access to the Olympics were to become in some way limited to UK viewers, the question should then be asked, why are National Lottery proceeds being directed to sports men and women who viewers will have limited access to seeing achieving their goals? I think this same question can be asked of any sport that locks out a proportion of the general public by selling their rights to pay TV providers.

Do We Need an Olympic TV Channel?

It’s a bit of a moot question, because the IOC has just voted to launch one at the 127th IOC session taking place today and tomorrow in Monaco.

The full description of the recommendation was as follows:

“The IOC to launch an Olympic Channel.”

Umm. OK.

Given that a large part of how the IOC generates revenue is selling TV rights to the Olympic Games, we can be pretty certain that live coverage of the actual summer and winter games is not going to be what this channel does. NBC, for example, has the rights to all the Olympics between now and 2032, paying an astronomical $7.75bn for the privilege.

Leaving aside the serious question of how TV is going to be broadcast in 2032, and whether linear channels with millions of viewers is how we’ll be watching, the scale of that deal makes clear the revenue implications of broadcast.

So you can be certain that an Olympic Channel will do nothing to damage those rights. That means that basically the channel won’t be able to broadcast any actual games’ coverage during the games themselves.

Each edition of the Games lasts for 17 days, just about five weeks in total every four year cycle. That leaves a lot of time when the Olympics aren’t on. And that means many many hours to fill on an Olympic channel.

Assuming that the channel isn’t just going to be filling the airtime with reheated old competitions that are of minimal interest (one off documentaries, yes; continuous re-runs of Atlanta 1996, no), what are they going to fill all that airtime with?

According to The Guardian’s Owen Gibson who is at the session:

I can’t wait for all of that to be added to my channel supplier. And is this going to be free, or are people going to be expected to pay to watch it?

I suppose the channel could show Olympic sports that don’t get much coverage outside of the Games. Except that some of those sports are pretty popular in some parts of the world – handball for example. And while fencing or modern pentathlon may not bring in big TV revenues anywhere, I’m not certain that they’ll bring in big audiences either.

My fear is that the channel could end up like Sky Sports F1. When the BBC let Sky enter the fray (to save itself some money), Sky threw the kitchen sink at Bernie Ecclestone. It would get a whole channel. Each weekend’s racing would be fully covered live, and with extensive highlights. There’d be lots of options on the red button.

But not even football gets its own channel, and that’s on nearly year round, with many hours of games a week – far more than F1 can offer. F1 has around 19/20 weekends a year, which means the channel has a lot of time to re-air old races, have a few talk shows, but generally fill itself with lots of repeats. And now there are a few months until the start of the next season, there’s really nothing new to show at all. They should have called the channel Sky Sports Motorsport, and included some more events to bulk out the channel offering.

Now if Sky Sports F1 is a bit of a waste of a space on the EPG (original programming could easily sit on the existing five channels, with red button and on demand programming used as and when), I can’t begin to think what a waste of space an Olympics channel might be.

Endless slightly dull interviews with Olympians in their training regimes? A detailed look at how London has evolved Stratford post games? I suspect we won’t be getting the inside story on German TV’s allegations about Russian sport, or looks at the working conditions taking place in potential bid nations (yes – I’m talking about Doha).

It does sound like the IOC is cleaning up its act – certainly when put alongside FIFA. But a channel with nothing of interest to show is just a waste of money.