For obvious reasons, the broadcasting world does not generally hold mass-murdering dictators in high esteem.
But, in a small way, and despite his many, many faults, the world of television has one such tyrant to thank for the connection between technological innovation and the Olympic Games. And no, this is not a joke.
The first handful of modern day Olympiads - in the late 19th and early 20th Century - were fairly low-key events. No fanfare, no fuss. It was only in 1936, prior to the Berlin Games, that someone spotted the huge marketing (nee propaganda) potential of a multi-discipline sporting event that would bring huge swathes of the world together. That person was Adolf Hitler.
As was his way, the Nazi leader resolved that everything at the 1938 Berlin Olympics would be bigger and better than at any Games before. *
New stadiums were built, an athlete’s village was introduced and, most significantly of all, a filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, was commissioned to document the Olympics.
In order to please Herr Fuhrer, Riefenstahl used the longest lenses, utilized high-speed recording for slo-mo shots and generally innovated in a way that few had done previously.
The film was not released until 18 months after the Games but the spirit of innovation that marked its production lives on and, pretty much ever since, the global celebration of sporting endeavor is matched every four years by an Olympian desire to extend the boundaries of broadcasting and, as Hitler decreed, be bigger and better than what has gone before.
We can see this happening constantly through the ages. In some cases the Olympics were the catalyst for innovation. In others, they were merely the venue for first trials or successful deployment. Either way, the Olympics and broadcast-related technological are intrinsically linked. Here are some highlights:
Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympics were not only filmed by Riefenstahl they were also the first Games ever to be broadcast and, by all accounts, the first televised sporting event full stop. With virtually nobody owning a domestic TV set at this stage the coverage was instead shown to local Berlin and Hamburg residents in specially built television halls.
The Olympics that followed WWII, the so-called “Austerity Games”, were the first to be shown on a home television service. The BBC spent a whopping £1,500 obtaining the rights so that they could broadcast the Games to the 60,000 homes that had TV sets. Records suggest that up 500,000 people, mainly from within a few miles of the capital, tuned in. London 1948 not only marked the first ever Olympic television outside broadcast operation it also heralded a new era in OB. Amongst the innovations were the first outing anywhere of the valve-based CPS Emitron cameras – with their iconic revolving lens turret - and the inaugural use of a new 3-camera EMI broadcasting truck that famously allowed the crew operating it to sit down inside an OB unit for the first time.
1956 Cortina d'Ampezza
Up until 1956 TV coverage of the Olympics was limited to the country in which it was hosted. The Winter Games at Cortina d'Ampezza in Italy changed all that. For the first time television pictures were relayed to other countries around the world by the Italian broadcaster RAI.
1960 Squaw Valley
The 1960 Winter Olympics were notable for two televisual reasons. One, the Americans got to see coverage for the first time. And two, it is said to have spawned the concept of the instant replay. As legend has it, during the men's slalom event race, officials, unsure if a skier had missed a gate, asked the broadcaster CBS if they could review a tape of the event. Some bright spark figured that seeing the action again might also be useful to television viewers. And the rest is history.
Japan’s Olympics of 1964 produced one of the biggest leap forwards in Olympics coverage: the introduction of experimental colour, a development that was available on eight different sports. But it was far from the only debut. NHK also developed new kit to aid coverage of the Games including an image pickup tube, a close-pickup microphone and a slow-motion VTR. Perhaps most significantly of all it also used satellites to relay coverage, in turn becoming probably the first sports ever to be transmitted that way (although the Cassius Clay vs Sonny Liston fight in the same year may have preceded it).
In 1968 the Olympics were broadcast in full colour for the first time and some 600 million people got to see it. Back home, to help make sure that we could too, the BBC pioneered the first use of an advanced electronic standards converter that would change the NTSC signal from Mexico City into PAL pictures for British TV sets.
1984 Los Angeles
Not only was the notion of a host broadcaster operation initiated in 1984, the LA Games also featured the first high definition trials. It would take another 24 years though before Beijing became the first Olympics to be broadcast totally in HD.
So, what of our own Olympian efforts? London 2012 coverage will encompass stereoscopic 3D coverage, will include use of NHK’s new dual lens ‘Twinscam’ system for capturing footage of synchronized swimmers both above and below the water and, perhaps most significantly of all, will see Super Hi-Vision presented publicly for the first time.
For those of you that have been to IBC or NAB since 2006, Super Hi-Vision (SHV) will be a known quantity. For the rest of the population it won’t.
Featuring a 7680x4320 resolution that is 16 times HD and 22.2 “360-degree” surround sound, SHV is remarkable leap forward in quality. Still at least ten years away from being commercially viable, the NHK/BBC led innovation will be presented in special screening venues in London, Glasgow and Bradford - as well as in the US and Japan - throughout the Games.
BBC project executive for digital services Tim Plyming says Super Hi-Vision has the potential to make viewers feel “as if they are actually watching the event in real life.”
He’s not wrong. And the Olympics, a pioneering sporting extravaganza on a huge scale, is the ideal venue to trial it. Thanks Uncle Adolf.
* Additional information from “The Olympics on Film” by Taylor Downing (History Today Volume: 62 Issue: 8)