Images increasingly surpass words at the Olympic Games of the modern media age

Few things in the modern world are easier to ridicule than television. Newspapers in particular, TV’s (sore) losing rivals for customers, advertising euros and journalistic fame, revel in their role as self-designated TV-bashers, often consigning the broadcast medium to the lower reaches of hell as either an information or entertainment vehicle. Social reformers deride it for everything from lowering student test scores to dumbing down the public debate – perhaps especially in Greece, where «TV windows» has entered the lexicon as a metaphor for chatterboxes seeking their 15 minutes of fame while cheerfully parading their pet theories as hard fact before a national audience. When something draws such widespread and open disdain, it’s time to ride to its defense. And in the Olympics context, television is in another league altogether: not just important but utterly decisive. The Games nowadays would be unthinkable without it. It provides the lion’s share of revenues for the International Olympic Committee and Games organizers; offers unrestricted worldwide access to an unsurpassed sporting event; underwrites international sports federations otherwise starved of funds; provides a life vest of sorts for minor sports that would otherwise die for lack of exposure; supports poorer countries otherwise unable to compete, and frees up Olympics organizers, and the Games themselves, from damaging dependency on national governments and even worse political meddling than occurs already. Television broadcasters, both public and commercial, pay huge fees that lubricate the entire process. And unlike the insider sponsorship deals and under-the-table payments to susceptible IOC members that have provided the grist for past scandals, TV seems more insulated from corrupting practices. At least, what they do is regulated by long-term contracts and scrutinized by everybody from lawmakers to homebodies. And television at the end of the day is a great leveler; an equal-opportunity window onto a unique happening – for free. It may not guarantee the brotherhood of man, but that’s still pretty good value for something widely derided as worse than worthless. Symbols and symbiosis Sport and television go together like hand in glove. The local sports pages have given an apt demonstration over the past month when Greece’s three top soccer divisions stopped play after a satellite TV channel under contract to broadcast the games, Alpha Digital, went belly up and the club owners went on strike because the government refused to step in and replace the lost revenues (ca. 35 million euros a year). In effect, Greek soccer is driven by television and its revenues. The underlying theme is that the medium has become more important than the events themselves. The Olympic Games are the quintessential «TV event» in the best as well as worst senses of the term. The Games lend themselves beautifully to the videocassette or the still camera, whether in close-ups of an athlete concentrating for a long jump, a slow-motion replay of a diver off the high board writhing in a triple twist, a skater fidgeting while awaiting her scores, or a medalist streaming tears on the victory stand. The Games are about emotion and action more than the mind; they extol the image, not the printed word. On the downside is the trend away from ceremony and toward splashy spectacle, especially at the opening and closing ceremonies, which draw the biggest audiences (and highest fees for advertisers). «We have to reach the masses,» said a chastened but determined IOC President Pierre de Coubertin in 1919. And how. From the first, clunky cameras introduced in the mid-1950s, and the satellite images first relayed from Tokyo in 1964, the Sydney Games of 2000 drew nine-tenths of all people on the planet with access to a TV set. Major markets showed an average of 19 hours per day, and the coverage was much broader than at Atlanta in 1996, with both Greece and the USA more than doubling their coverage to over 400 hours for the 17 days. The Sydney Olympic Broadcast Organization positioned over 900 cameras and showed 3,500 hours of original host broadcast coverage of more than 300 events. An estimated 3.7 billion people tuned in worldwide, and viewer hours totaled a staggering 36.1 billion in just 17 days. (Where do they get all these figures, anyway?) And technological sophistication also means that different countries watch different coverage; in Denmark, where the national team competed for the handball final at Sydney, the match gained a huge, 93.8 percent market share. Games for sale These viewing figures reflect a gritty, sustained effort by the IOC to bolster the Games’s popularity and visibility by maximizing their appeal to the wider public. The vehicles used are broadcasting and, more generally, marketing agreements exploiting its well-known symbols and logos. The watershed came in 1980, when the US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics caused the US broadcasters to pull the plug on American coverage, practically losing the IOC its collective shirt in the process. From 1981, the IOC under Juan Antonio-Samaranch determined to put itself and the Games on stable economic footing. Not surprisingly, this has involved a careful balancing act that can leave the IOC open to charges of double standards, unwittingly bound up in its own statement that «the Games provide a marketing platform based on ideals and values.» The five-ringed flag – colorful, simple, and universally identifiable – is now worth billions in the open market. But that symbol has been carefully cultivated, ruthlessly negotiated over, and sold, paradoxically, as a product unsullied by the marketplace. Olympics marketing principles nonetheless do exist, and include a ban on venue advertising (the Games are unique in this respect), «clean» telecasts, and a strictly controlled number of corporate sponsorships. Via the latter, maximum demand is squeezed out of the marketplace. Small supply equals big prices, and symbolic value translates into monetary worth; Dick Pound, Jacques Rogge’s main competitor for IOC president last year, noted immodestly that the Sydney 2000 Games «stands… as a tribute to the most successful marketing effort the world has ever seen.» Yet one man’s commercial success is another’s ripoff; writers like Andrew Jennings, who wrote «The Great Olympic Swindle,» have denounced this heavy-handed marketing as selling out or worse, but it does at least ensure a wide distribution of the revenues generated. One of the (many) «fundamental principles» of the IOC is the right for people everywhere to watch the Olympic Games free of charge. Thus, it claims, it has turned down many offers worth more for pay-per-view deals that would restrict viewership. But in order to achieve this bow to the vox populi, it engages in ferocious bargaining with world broadcasters, without middlemen or third-party negotiators to do the dirty work, over long-term contracts. The current agreement runs through the 2008 Olympics at Beijing. Formal negotiations for the next one will begin next year, a full five years ahead of time. Exploratory talks have reportedly already been initiated to that end. TV may be instantaneous, but broadcasters do like to plan ahead.