The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Nine

The LA 2024 bid team sprinkle some Tinseltown glamour over the main press centre at Rio 2016, but the real visual magic is made across the way at the international broadcast centre.

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Nine

Picture, if you will, an Olympic Games in a mountainous coastal metropolis with an international reputation for diversity, for world class food and nightlife, scenic highways and a passion for sport and outdoor pursuits.

Then imagine that city could host the Olympics by building just one new venue – that city, as it might by now be clear, is not Rio de Janeiro – and could count upon the innovation and financial power of best-in-class technology and entertainment industries. That was the “virtually risk-free” pitch made by the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games at a conference at the main press centre (MPC) on Tuesday.

Southern California is where stars are born and found, and LA 2024 is making much of its high-wattage bid leadership. There was a strong bench on show at the MPC.

Vice chair Janet Evans - herself a four-time Olympic swimming gold medallist - introduced the bid chairman, agency kingpin Casey Wasserman, as “an innovator in the world of sports, a leader in business, and somebody who has the Olympics in his genes”. He was joined by Eric Garcetti, the “ideal Olympic bid mayor, right out of central casting”, and a trio of International Olympic Committee (IOC) members – Angela Ruggiero, Anita DeFrantz and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) chairman Larry Probst – while chief executive Gene Sykes and his USOC counterpart Scott Blackmun sat in the audience with bid ambassadors Nadia Comanechi, Bart Connor, Michael Johnson and Sinjin Smith.

Garcetti, a native Angeleno whom Probst described as a “rock star”, merrily played up the similarities between his city and Rio. “The sunshine, the spirit and soul of the city’s diversity and friendliness, the mountains cascading into a beautiful ocean, make an Angeleno certainly feel at home,” he said.

A less generous observer might note the other things that LA shares with Rio - a sprawling layout, traffic problems, dense pockets of violent criminality, a history of tension between the public and law enforcement, and difficulties with pollution – and note that the American city would not face the same doubts about its capacity to host an Olympics. But that, in no small part, is because it has confidently done so before – and because the Olympic movement owes the city a sizeable debt for its commercial rescue of the Games in 1984.

“’84 took the Games in a new direction, in a very positive direction,” said Probst. “We think that we can reimagine a new future for the Olympic Games with creativity and technology and help to move the Olympic movement in a very positive direction.”

If there is a sense now that the renewal that was borne of those Games has now begun to expire, whether through administrative travails or fatigue with a model that was created 32 years ago, Garcetti was on hand to suggest that another Los Angeles Olympics could inspire a further lease of life.

“LA is a city that is in love with new beginnings,” said Garcetti, “and we’d love to start a new beginning for the IOC as well.”

As if to further compound the comparisons with Rio, the bid team were asked a series of questions about presidential politics. But where Garcetti had last weekend said IOC members might distance themselves from a US bid in the advent of a Donald Trump administration in the White House, now he was more circumspect.

“This does not depend on any election,” he said, “no matter what the outcome.”

Across the main courtyard from where the Hollywood bid was being outlined is the International Broadcast Centre, or IBC, where the Olympics’ own television magic is made. The IBC is a vital base for all the rights-holding broadcasters operating out in Rio, and is also the Games-time home of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).

The host broadcaster for every Olympic Games, OBS has a permanent base in Madrid where it has a full-time staff of 150. That workforce has swelled to around 7,100 for Rio 2016, with a small army of freelancers taken on to bolster its technical, editorial and administrative operations.

There are two buildings making up the IBC. Staff and visitors enter through the operations building, an administrative hub where broadcasters can book rooms or liaise where required with the city. This is also the place to find the spectrum desk, where every camera and piece of wireless broadcast equipment must be accredited and fitted with a barcode. With 27,000 people making use of the IBC over the course of the Games, there is a lot of equipment to register.

Technical staff will go past the spectrum desk and into the main building at the IBC. This is the business end of the whole endeavour, where the Olympic broadcast is pieced together for global consumption.

The technical stretch of the IBC is marked by corridors that are no so much dark as denying almost all light, save for those that come from the screens on which operatives focus their urgent attention. The process of producing live Olympic coverage is split into four parts, under the acronym CDUT.

The ‘contribution’ unit receives images from the hundreds of cameras set up around the 32 venues. The ‘distribution’ team sends ‘unbiased’ multi-lateral footage - the international feed with no specific country focus - out to broadcasters.

Then there is the ‘unilateral’ section. Individual broadcasters, should they so choose, can purchase the use of cameras and positions to direct their own national view of events, picking out relevant athletes or spectators. Finally, once commentary has been appended to the appropriate coverage at the commentary-switching centre - which will process around 1,300 feeds over the course of Rio 2016 - it goes for ‘transmission’.

The transmission of live Olympic coverage is not done directly from the IBC. Instead, it is sent to one of five international hubs - in Rio, Los Angeles, London, New York and Frankfurt - and then makes the journey by satellite to TV channels and viewers around the globe.

Adjacent to the CDUT rooms is one demonstrating two projects which are new for Rio 2016. Cinematic virtual reality is being tested here for the first time at an Olympic Games. Using a smartphone and headset - or to put it more accurately, a Galaxy smartphone and Gear VR headset provided by IOC TOP sponsor Samsung - viewers can watch in 360 degrees from fixed vantage points in an Olympic arena.

In this case, it is the early rounds of the boxing tournament and there are four cameras to choose from: two by the judges’ seats and one in each fighter’s corner. Impressively, and unusually at this point in VR’s development, the footage is streamed live.

The other innovation, which is less eye-catching but more influential for these Games, is the Olympic Video Player (OVP). This is a mobile and online app which is made available to broadcasters on a white-label basis - meaning it carries the broadcaster’s own branding, rather than that of OBS. All live feeds are made available to viewers at once, while on-demand coverage of completed events is also accessible. It is a comprehensive option, but a cheaper one than buying access to unilateral editorial coverage.

With only 58 broadcasters in a position to take full rights to the Games this time around the ability to pick up a cheaper package is enticing, and OBS has also beefed up its multi-lateral package for Rio 2016. In addition to 12 sports feeds available at any one time, broadcasters can also get access to the newly launched Olympic News Service.

Operated 24 hours a day by OBS staff, it creates news and interview footage, as well as highlights, for the use of channels between live programming. It expects to produce 456 hours over the course of the Games. There are also static ‘beauty cameras’ around the city collecting images of telegenic spots like the downtown Olympic cauldron, Cristo Redentor, Sugarloaf Mountain or Copacabana, to be spliced into broadcasts as interstitial clips.

There are two dry but essential elements of the OBS set-up in the next corridor. In the logging and tagging ingest room, incoming footage is archived and bookmarked for later reference - a vital process for the creation of highlights or historic footage. Clips can be requested by broadcasters at an on-site service window or accessed remotely.

The main equipment room houses the servers that store footage from around the Games. There is, however, a running back-up created on another site so that live Olympic coverage is reduced, but not suspended, in the event of server failure.

The real showstopper comes courtesy of Japanese broadcaster NHK. It is trialling its Super Hi-Vis 8K technology at Rio 2016, with resolution twice that of 4K and 16 times that of high definition. OBS is treating visitors to live 8K screenings of events from the Games in a custom-created cinema room. Swimming heats from the Olympic Aquatics Stadium are an excellent vehicle.

Paired with 22.2-channel surround sound, watching sport in 8K is a remarkable experience. There is a marked leap in clarity from HD, with the viewer’s eye taken to details that would go without notice in the flesh but would not be visible in a regular broadcast: the creasing of clothes, the rippling of the pool’s surface, reflections of light in each swimmer’s cap and the running water on their skin.

The sound quality is perhaps more astounding. Calls and cheers can be heard from all over the arena, almost forcing the viewer to look round for their source, while noises like that of the tannoy or starter’s whistle echo convincingly. When one of the swimmers strikes his starting block, it makes a satisfying thwack. To use a recurrent but in this case quite accurate industry trope, it really is as close as you can get to being there.

The expense of 8K is such that it will no doubt be some years before it is ready for mainstream consumer use, but its more extensive application at Tokyo 2020 is a racing certainty.

Internationally, outside the IOC itself, there is probably no more powerful guardian of the Olympic appeal than OBS. It fulfils an invaluable obligation to the host of the Games: that of maximising the appeal of its most tourist-friendly assets. If venues like the Beach Volleyball Arena on Copacabana or the sailing facility at Marina da Gloria - whose waters may not be pure but whose setting and backdrop are beguiling - are to act on the desires global of would-be visitors the world over, then OBS needs to be on its game.

Likewise, the host broadcaster can help TV companies around the world to tell the stories of remarkable athletes like American gymnast Simone Biles - a gold medal winner with the US women’s team on Tuesday - capturing their every extraordinary action and searing their exploits on to the public consciousness.

But just as important to the success of the Olympics as a concept is that sports and competitors of a lesser profile get their due. A short and relatively painless hop from the Barra Olympic Park by bus, the Riocentro conference centre is home to a handful of small-arena sports like boxing, badminton and table tennis. It is a distinctly unlovely venue but it contains a cluster of close-range, atmospheric seating arrangements - its closest London 2012 parallel is the ExCel Centre in that respect.

Weightlifting is one of those sports that many casual viewers would happily define as ‘Olympic’. There is the simplicity of the competitive goal – this is the sport which quite literally encompasses the ‘stronger’ third of the movement’s ‘citius, altius, fortius’ motto. There is the classical nature of the rituals involved: the chalking of the hands, the centring of the body, the steadying of the breathing. It is also a sport that rewards a singular focus on a narrow range of disciplines, producing some remarkable results. The clean and jerk is an especially impressive spectacle: the bar bending under improbable weight as the body refuses to yield.

And yet it is also a sport, in common with too many in the Olympics, in which viewers can be forgiven for not trusting what they see. According to the Associated Press, the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) forbade any mention of doping in the press conference after Tuesday’s 69kg final - though the topic will be up for discussion at later events.

It is a shame, and a concern, because even as the IOC reaches out with new sports to new demographics, it needs events like weightlifting. This is a competition that brings together countries in an unfamiliar calibration. Though the arena is half-full at best, there is vocal support for Colombia’s Luis Javier Mosquera Lozano, who finishes just outside the medals. Mexico’s Bredni Roque Mendoza also has a healthy following, with one of their number prominent in a luchador mask. Turkish fans roar and stamp Daniyar Ismayilov all the way to a silver medal.

China are delivered another gold by the imperious Shi Zhiyong, but there is also a bronze for Kyrgyzstan. There are finalists from North and South Korea, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, France and Chinese Taipei.

Before the usual suspects abscond with the usual prizes in the days ahead, these are the kind of events that bring the whole world into the most global of sporting events. It is a world worth protecting, and a world worth being seen.

To read the previous entries of SportsPro's Rio 2016 Diary, click the following:

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day One

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Two

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Three

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Four

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Five

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Six

The Rio 2016 Olympics Diary: Day Seven

The Rio 2016 Olympic Diary: Day Eight