INTERVIEWS

Yiannis Exarchos: Bringing the Games to our screens

Olympic Broadcasting Services CEO talks about the many milestones in the coverage of Paris 2024, from technology to greater female participation

Yiannis Exarchos: Bringing the Games to our screens

His office in Madrid is filled with books, records and a turntable… the remedy for when things get tough. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t listen to music from some of his 55,000 records, reads, or watches a movie. But the rest of his time is spent working tirelessly, overseeing every aspect of production and knowing every detail about broadcasting the Olympic Games.

Yiannis Exarchos, CEO of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) division responsible for Olympic broadcast coverage, ensures – along with his thousands of associates – that the magic of each event reaches our screens and speakers. International broadcasting networks respect and trust him implicitly, as his service reliably delivers content to half the world’s screens.

Run-up to Paris

As the Paris Olympic Games approach, work is nonstop. For the first time, the Games’ TV coverage will be cinematic in style. Since assuming the post in 2012 after the London Games, Exarchos has strived to ensure each broadcast reflects the essence of the host country’s character, “as though the Games were national.” Hence, in Paris, the birthplace of the Lumiere brothers and cinema, this approach is particularly fitting.

“I think it is quite typical to think a bit differently in each city and country, but the central idea is always how to convey the host country’s atmosphere, people, creativity and look through the event’s coverage. It’s amazing and important to show this during the Games. Technology is crucial in highlighting each location’s uniqueness,” the Greek TV producer tells Kathimerini.

For Exarchos, Paris 2024 offers a chance to use cinematic techniques to tell “human stories” about the athletes. There has been a convergence recently between film and video technologies. Traditionally, TV and film used different filming techniques and, more importantly, lenses. Now, though, the lenses used in cinema have become a part of language that is extremely rich and we can now use it in live broadcasts, not just post-production. This is especially true when capturing emotional moments and audience reactions, making the broadcast more engaging.”

For the Paris Olympics, OBS will broadcast 11,000 hours of content – equal to around 450 days of coverage – over 17 days. To achieve this, OBS has enlisted about 8,500 people from at least 100 countries, over 1,000 cameras, and nearly 5,000 microphones. “We’ll also have around 15,000 journalists from around the world. In total, over 20,000 people will be involved in broadcasting the Games. With at least 10,000 athletes, that’s two people for each athlete!” Exarchos says.

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For the Paris Olympics, OBS will broadcast 11,000 hours of content – equal to around 450 days of coverage – over 17 days. [Owen Hammond/OBS]

More communication, more technology

The cinema-style coverage of the Paris Olympic Games is a first for both the city and OBS. This massive broadcasting undertaking – across traditional and new media – would be impossible without artificial intelligence, marking another first this year. “AI will help us create shots like something from ‘The Matrix,’ where the image ‘freezes’ and you get a 360-degree view of the scene. It is also an element of fair play. Replays of critical moments will be automatic, with one camera capturing the scene and AI composing it from different angles within seconds. This will make a big difference,” Exarchos points out. 

‘Viewers need to understand what’s happening in each sport in about four minutes and find something fascinating about it. You want them to say “Wow!”’

Another innovation in the upcoming Games involves making the sports more familiar to viewers who don’t know much about them. Olympic viewers, explains Exarchos, are not the same as the specialized audiences of world championships; they watch the Games because it is a big event.

“If you leave out sports like soccer and basketball, the Olympics are a unique opportunity for people, especially younger ones, to learn about various sports, many of which get limited exposure today. So, we need to make each sport immediately understandable and captivating. In a competitive environment, with 17 sports happening simultaneously, viewers need to understand what’s happening in each one in about four minutes and find something fascinating about it. You want them to say ‘Wow!’”

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Viewers will be given a lot more information and appealing visuals for each sport so they can better appreciate the technical challenges. [Owen Hammond/OBS]

OBS will also use more graphics to add magic to the broadcasts, along with extensive use of social media. It will produce social media content, giving rights-holding broadcasters instant access to the material. Special software will resize images for each platform.

“All of this will be much more dynamic, for example allowing us to pin athletes, track them, receive more information and understand distances between them. In sports like marathons, identifying individual athletes is challenging at the start. In wrestling or judo, it’s hard to see what’s happening at critical moments – to identify where each athlete’s limbs are and how holds are executed. This technology will tell a clear story through social media for the first time,” Exarchos adds.

Gender equality

Another historic milestone at the Paris Olympic Games is the equal participation of women and men. “This was a specific goal set by the IOC 10, 15 years ago: to have equal participation of male and female athletes in Paris,” says Exarchos. “Achieving this required various steps, such as directing Olympic Solidarity funding to develop sports with lower female participation. The IOC also pressured national federations to create categories for women. It took time for female athletes to reach the elite level and qualify for the Olympics. Even in broadcasting, 80% of journalists at the Olympics and other sports events are men, which has bothered me for years. We’ve worked to change this at all levels.”

Gender equality has also been a goal within OBS. Over the last 10 years, the OBS staff has shifted from 80% men and 20% women to 54% men and 46% women. In Paris, two-thirds of the venue leaders will be women. 

“We’ve implemented training programs in France for young female camera operators – we’ll use 80 camerawomen – addressing one of the specialties with fewer women. The areas with a shortage of women are in camera operation and hardcore engineering. In all other fields, we now have more women than men. This is very important to me,” Exarchos says.

He also emphasizes that OBS has issued guidelines to directors and producers on how to portray women at the Games, whether athletes or spectators. “Think about how men and women are framed in sports coverage, how many close-ups focus on women, especially when they are made up, compared to men using their phones. It’s unconscious bias,” he notes.

Tokyo and fear

Commenting on the 2020 summer Olympics in the middle of the pandemic, Exarchos says, “The Tokyo Games were a huge success primarily because they happened at all!” 

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A shot of the Olympic Broadcasting Services during coverage of the Tokyo Games, which Covid pushed to 2021 from 2020. [Silvio Avila]

“As humanity, we’ve quickly moved past the dark period of the pandemic, but if we look back, we endured years of fear and immense uncertainty. The great risk with the Tokyo Games was whether they could take place at all, because this would ultimately determine the survival of sports. Missing an Olympic event would have severely impacted the world of sports and an entire generation of athletes. Most elite athletes – about 70% – get just one chance in their lifetime to go to the Olympics. Very few attend more than one. So, missing one Olympics would mean a whole generation of top athletes losing the opportunity of a lifetime. That’s why it was so important to hold the Games,” he stresses.

Holding the Games during the pandemic was, predictably, not an easy undertaking. OBS had to come up with innovative solutions since there were no spectators in the stadiums. “It helped that the Games were held a year later than planned,” the OBS CEO explains.

“In sports events, one of the worst things you can have is an empty stadium. Not everyone realizes this, but a large part of what makes the event is a full stadium and a warm atmosphere. The Olympics traditionally have an incredible atmosphere, so the challenge was: We have fantastic stadiums and the best athletes in the world, but all these stadiums will be empty. For many athletes, the crowd’s energy is the ultimate boost. The Olympics are an emotional event. So, three months before the Games, we accelerated an idea I had for the future – from Paris onwards – about live interactive digital connections between athletes and their loved ones, friends and parents,” says Exarchos.

Thanks to OBS’ novel initiative, athletes were able to communicate with their loved ones immediately after completing their events. “If you look closely, after finishing their performance, athletes take a victory lap but then often look into the crowd for their own people. This opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without our intervention,” he explains.

Facilitating this connection proved to be quite complicated and was managed entirely from Brussels. OBS got in touch with each athlete and asked them to put its operators in touch with the people they wanted to connect to so they could be guided through the setup process.

OBS also designed a system to telecast sporting events from everywhere in the world to everywhere else. “We had broadcasters covering a sports event in Japan live, say, from California, with the transmission center stationed in Madrid. It was the same approach – and technology – used to broadcast many K-pop concerts, attracting millions of viewers globally that could get that live feel,” recounts Exarchos.

In addition, it encouraged spectators worldwide to contribute to the Games’ atmosphere by submitting short videos, which were screened in the stadiums in lieu of a crowd. “If memory serves, we received nearly 160 million videos from across the globe!” 

Looking forward, this initiative has evolved significantly and will continue in Paris. It’s a “legacy” of the pandemic, says the OBS CEO. “The pandemic made us think more, and find immediate solutions.”

Athens 2004

Twenty years since the Athens Olympics, Exarchos admits that he often ponders the legacy and cost of those Games. 

“Even now, it seems we still haven’t fully grasped what we accomplished in 2004. For various reasons, we moved on from the event without fully understanding its global impact – a significant moment for our country, precisely because expectations were modest. The Games, from their opening ceremony to their entirety, brought global admiration. They not only inspired but also empowered an entire generation to work cohesively towards presenting a modern Greece,” he says.

‘Even now, it seems we still haven’t fully grasped what we accomplished in 2004’

“For me, the Paris Games, heirs to Athens’ legacy, represent an opportunity. Firstly, they highlight how a Greek concept endures across centuries. At Trocadero, 120 world leaders will gather for the opening ceremony, drawn together because this concept, which originated in Greece, resonates globally, even among skeptics – it is meaningful. The fact that 4 billion people, half the planet, watch this sporting event is not just in our heads. It’s because the core idea means something. I believe that some kind of measure to safeguard this pride and to protect this idea, even through education, is called for. We should revisit and embrace the legacy of the 2004 Games; I feel the impact they left on people and those who worked on them, even today, when I visit Greece,” says Exarchos.

“It is time to move beyond our national pride and acknowledge our country’s achievements. Certainly, there were shortcomings in legacy planning, infrastructure and human resources after the Games. The Olympics accelerated various projects that might have otherwise stalled. However, there were also instances, driven by traditional Greek political motives, where truly unnecessary facilities were constructed without there being any demand for them,” he adds.

“I also don’t think the country effectively capitalized on a new generation of professionals who were involved in the Games and worked with such professionalism, and who were overlooked by the Greek state in its efforts to change course. London serves as a model in this regard. Today, key figures from the London Games hold critical positions in Britain’s government apparatus. In this context, we fell short.”

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AI is being recruited in the service of fair play, providing images of every moment in every competition from different angles. [Owen Hammond/OBS]

 

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