Before there was a Twitter, camera or even a telegraph, the results of the Olympics were transmitted via carrier pigeon. Our technology has come a long way since the ancient Greek Games. Over the last few decades, advances have brought the Olympics to the living room and smartphone, redesigned a torch that can travel from the depths of the Great Barrier Reef to the peak of Mount Everest and unveiled unparalleled timing accuracy that can measure down to a millionth of a second.
From closed circuit to 3-D broadcast
The Berlin Games in 1936 was the first Olympics shown on television, but the broadcast was available only on a closed circuit to several viewing halls within the city.
The 1948 London Olympics marked the establishment of a broadcast rights fee. While the BBC agreed to pay 1,000 guineas, or about $3,000, the payment was rejected by the Organizing Committees for the Olympic Games over concerns about the network's finances. The BBC's live coverage totaled about 64 hours and was limited to a 50-mile radius in London, reaching about 500,000 viewers.
In 1960, CBS broadcast the first U.S. telecast of the Olympics. When officials were unsure whether a skier missed a gate during the Squaw Valley Winter Games, they asked CBS to review its tape, leading to the creation of instant replay.
Fast forward to 2012, and TV networks worldwide are expected to broadcast more than 61,000 hours and reach 4.8 billion people in 200 countries and territories. It is also the first Olympics to introduce live 3-D coverage, totaling more than 230 hours. The Olympic Broadcasting Services is expected to produce 5,600 hours of coverage, compared with 5,000 for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
First live stream wasn’t a video broadcast at all
Live-streaming's Olympic history stems back to 2000. Except during the Sydney Games, NBCOlympics.com didn't have live video, instead transmitting a series of still images from the network's video feed.
By the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, IOC gave a Swiss network, Television Suisse Romande, the rights to stream live video to a closed network, reaching up to 2,000 DSL subscribers simultaneously.
By the time Athens rolled around in 2004, European networks started showing live streams. NBC, however, began offering delayed video online to Visa cardholders as well as brief video highlights for premium AT&T mobile subscribers.
At the Turin Winter Games in 2006, NBC finally made a live stream available for a single hockey game.
For the 2008 Beijing Olympics, NBC live-streamed most events with delayed coverage for track and field, gymnastics and swimming -- the Summer Games’ most popular events.
But NBC decided to pull back the number of streams during the 2010 Vancouver Games, offering only live coverage of curling and ice hockey.
NBC's live-streaming app now covers all events for the 2012 London Games, but it can be viewed only by cable and satellite TV subscribers. For the first time, IOC is also broadcasting the events live and on-demand via its YouTube channel, viewable in 64 territories in Asia and Sub-Sahran Africa.
Developing an Olympic torch to stay lit while traveling the world
The Olympic torch, a tradition that harks back to ancient Greek Games, is relayed for months before arriving at the host city for the Opening Ceremony, where it will stay lit until the Closing Ceremony. In modern Olympics, the flame is lit directly by the sun after its rays are concentrated by a parabolic mirror. Over the years, organizers have been using different fuel sources to keep the torch lit while relaying it to challenging environments.
Beginning with the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the torches used solid fuels, such as magnesium, naphthalene and even gunpowder.
In 1956, the torch was kept lit with magnesium and aluminum, a combination that created a brilliant flame but also burned the torchbearers.
From 1972 onward, gas fuels and liquid were used. A pressurized fuel tank held butane, propane or propylene, but emissions became an issue.
At the turn of the millennium, the torch started going to exotic and faraway locales, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Mount Everest. To handle the challenge, scientists developed a lightweight perforated aluminum that conducts less heat. The torch’s 2012 design includes 8,000 holes to represent the 8,000 torchbearers and 8,000 miles they traveled. The London organizers failed to find a carbon-friendly fuel solution, instead falling back on butane and propane.
Accuracy down to the millionth second
Omega has been the official timekeeper of the Olympics for the last 80 years. Back in 1932, timekeepers used stopwatches that measured to the tenth of a second.
Omega unveiled the world's first independent, portable and water-resistant photoelectric cell used in London in 1948.
For the 1952 Helsinki Games, Omega began using electronic timing with the Omega Time Recorder.
Ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Games, the watchmaker developed the Omegascope in 1961, which showed each competitor's time on a TV screen. In 1962, Omega unveiled its contact pads used for timing swimming competitions.
By the 2008 Beijing Olympics, high-speed video cameras, capable of shooting 1,000 frames per second, were used in addition to the electronic timing system to help break ties.
In the 2010 Vancouver Games, the start pistol was replaced with an electronic starting gun.
At London, high-speed cameras can shoot 2,000 frames per second, double that of Beijing. Omega's Quantum Timer is able to provide accurate time readings down to the microsecond, or about one-millionth of a second, 100,000 times more accurate than Omega’s technology in 1932.