Digital revolution could be Olympics' salvation

LONDON (Reuters) - For the Olympic movement, the digital revolution is armed with a double-edged sword -- it has lured the younger generation away from sport but could open up the Olympic experience to a far wider audience.

A man takes a photograph before the start of the flag raising ceremony at dawn in Beijing's Tiananmen Square June 4, 2008. REUTERS/David Gray

“It (digital media) will have a transforming impact on the Olympics at multiple levels,” says Shoba Purushothaman, CEO of Web-based video marketing platform The NewsMarket.

“It will change story-telling for the Games by making it more human and personal.”

A Summer Games was one of the sporting and television highlights of the year for today’s parents and grandparents.

In the 21st century, young people have a huge variety of sport, music and entertainment media to flick through, both on television and the internet, and the Olympics has no special aura for many of them.

“The Olympic Games are not that credible or relevant to most young people in the developed or developing world,” says Alex Balfour, head of new media at the London 2012 organizing committee.

The average age of viewers for the 2004 Games in Athens was over 40 and shows no signs of falling.

“I will maybe watch highlight shows on TV later in the evening but I can never see myself watching it live,” said Richard Cousins, a 19-year-old British student.

If the Games lose their cachet in years to come, billions of dollars from sponsorship and broadcasting rights that support the Olympic movement could melt away.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recognized the warning signs and took steps to attract a younger audience by introducing sports like snowboarding to the Winter Olympics, and BMX cycling which makes its debut in Beijing in August.

In February, the IOC went further by choosing Singapore to host the first summer Youth Olympics in 2010, a “key moment” in the words of IOC President Jacques Rogge.

“They (the Youth Olympics) will also be the platform through which youngsters will learn about Olympic values and the benefits of sport, and share their experiences with other communities around the globe,” Rogge said.

Platforms and access to communities in the digital world could be just as important in deciding if the Olympics retain their high profile, experts said ahead of a Summer Games in Beijing which is being billed as the first digital Olympics.

“The Olympic Games will be played out on Facebook, YouTube and Flickr whether we like it or not. We need to engage not disengage with them,” Balfour told a conference on sports and technology in London. Flickr is a photo-sharing Web site owned by Yahoo.


U.S. internet users viewed more than 12 billion online videos during May, according to digital research firm Comscore, a 45 percent increase over the year before. About one-third of those were on YouTube, owned by Google.

But fans expecting to visit the site to catch up on the day’s action in Beijing next month are likely to be disappointed because the IOC is having problems adjusting to the share-it-all ethos of the internet.

In company with other major sports federations, the IOC keeps a very tight rein on its showpiece occasions and views video postings on sites like YouTube as a threat to its rights holders, who can broadcast on television and a number of digital platforms.

The IOC uses video-fingerprinting technology and Web-crawling (monitoring) techniques to prevent unauthorized content being uploaded and track illegal content on Web sites.

However, it has acknowledged the young’s infatuation with social networking sites and the increasing power of citizen journalism.

In February, the IOC said it would allow blogging by athletes for the first time at August’s Games. In 2010, the 3,500 competitors at the inaugural Youth Olympics will be urged to have their own blog.

“Technology is the key enabler for the Olympic Games,” said Alexander Vronski, technology vice president for the Sochi Winter Games of 2014. “New media can engage nations.”


Technological advances mean minority sports will get a greater share of the spotlight via streaming video on Web sites and digital television.

In the United States, NBC will offer 3,600 hours of coverage of the August 8-24 Games, triple its offering from the Athens Games, and about a third of this will be streamed over the internet.

3G mobile phone technology could also have a huge impact on the Olympics, allowing athletes and visitors in the Chinese capital to communicate their experiences to those back home.

“People taking photos and video with their cell phones will change the way we watch the Games,” says The NewsMarket’s Purushothaman.

“For the first time, digital technology will liberate how we all, sitting outside, see the Games.” But the IOC will not allow spectators to publish on the internet photos and video taken inside Olympic venues.

“As the iPhone capabilities are growing by the day I can probably see myself using my iPhone to view Olympic clips on the go, maybe on my way to work or when out with my friends,” said Richard Woods, 20, a public relations executive.

The long-term goal of the IOC in embracing modern technology is to try to get young people away from their video consoles and out into the fresh air to play sport and stay healthy.

One reason London was chosen to stage the 2012 Games was its pledge to engage young people in the Olympic project and to encourage them to participate actively in sport.

Jon Tibbs, whose public relations company has several Olympic clients, says the “digital marketplace has the potential to re-engage hundreds of millions of people with sport” and, as an added benefit to the Olympic movement, re-energize the interest of consumer companies in sponsoring the Games.

Rogge believes that once youngsters have been persuaded to play sport, they will realize digital competition -- even the active interactivity of Nintendo’s Wii console -- is no match for the cut and thrust of sporting competition.

“You will never achieve in a video game,” Rogge told The Times newspaper in May. “It is not really success.”

Additional reporting by Mike Buonaiuto and Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Sara Ledwith