Olympics on TV: How the World is One

When Lopez Lomong led the US team into the opening ceremony of Beijing 2008 Olympics as its flag-bearer, he was completing a journey that started eight years earlier, on another continent. And under very different circumstances.

In September 2000, as a Sudanese refugee, he walked eight kilometers from a refugee camp in Kenya, and paid five Kenyan shillings, to watch the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television. There, he saw Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400 meters, and that gave him a dream.

Until then, he’d not even heard of the Olympics. From then onwards, he wanted to be an Olympic runner. In Beijing, he is competing as a 1,500-meter track runner. Just as important, he is a leading member of Team Darfur, an international coalition of athletes committed to raising awareness about and bringing an end to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.

According to his website, at age 6 he was abducted from a Sudanese church by a militia faction that wanted to turn young boys into child soldiers. He eventually escaped the militia camp through a hole in a fence with three older boys who carried them on their backs as they walked for three days until they reached Kenya, where police arrested them and sent them to a refugee camp. He spent 10 years in the camp, living on one meal a day.

Read Lopez Lomong biography on his website

Read New York Times profile of Lopez Lomong, 2 July 2008

Through a combination of persistence, determination and luck, Lopez came to the United States through the help of Christian charities. There, he could pursue his dream – he became a naturalised citizen only about a year before the Beijing Olympics.

“I come here to inspire kids who are out there watching this Olympics, as I did watching the Sydney Olympics,” Lopez told the media in Beijing. “All the countries and all the nations are out there watching. I’m very honored to be here and I am very honored to lead the American team into the opening ceremony.”

Indeed, the summer Olympics have become one of the most widely watched events in the world. An estimated four billion people worldwide watched the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony on 8 August 2008. (Even if two complete spoilsports – Russia and Georgia – started a little war that very day, many news media outlets didn’t pay them much attention until the Beijing opening ceremony was over.)

And for the first time, that viewing was not confined to television alone: a small but growing number followed the event online, heralding the arrival of another distribution medium for this global event.

Olympic broadcasts go back to nearly half a century, when the 1960 Rome games became the first to be covered live on television. Olympic games have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with television, with the medium popularizing the event to the point that the global audience is now counted in billions of viewers.

As I have commented in another blog post, this close relationship between the Olympics and television does have its downside. The medium’s showbiz driven demands for style over substance can and do sometimes distort reality and even threaten the integrity of the Olympics movement as a sporting event.

The International Olympics Committee (IOC) tries hard to strike a balance between revenue optimisation and safeguarding the Olympics ideals. This is why, for example, the IOC has often declined higher fee offers for broadcast on a pay-per-view basis or because a broadcaster could reach only a limited part of the population, as this is against Olympic Broadcast Policy.

As the IOC explains on its website: “This fundamental IOC Policy, set forth in the Olympic Charter, ensures the maximum presentation of the Olympic Games by broadcasters around the world to everyone who has access to television. Rights are only sold to broadcasters who can guarantee the broadest coverage throughout their respective countries.”

This is extremely important. It’s impossible to put a dollor or Euro figure to the inspirational value of television (and now online) coverage of the Olympics. For the couple of weeks that the summer Olympics are held, moving images from the host city captivate the world’s eyeballs in a way that few other events can.

Among the Beijing 2008’s billions of viewers might well be the next Lopez Lomong. We have no way of knowing that yet…but if not for the worldwide broadcasts and webcasts, the global event in Beijing will not be shared by most members of the Global Family.

Read more about Olympics and television

Blog post on 13 Aug 2008: Beijing 2008: So what’s a little fake for a cuter Olympics?

Blog post on 8 Aug 2008: Olympics 2008 Campaign: The Best of Us