Just a thought…on every Olympic sport at Rio 2016


How was it for you, then? As I write, Rio 2016 is drawing gently to a close, and if you’re anything like me you’ve spent the past 17 days and nights gorging on the feast of Olympic sport from the comfort of your armchair – in my case, mainly watching the main BBC networks, occasionally dipping into the wealth of live action available via the red button, and, when otherwise engaged, at work or asleep, snatching a glance at the key action via the (superb) BBC website. And, without being blinkered, it’s clearly been another exceptional Games for Team GB.

It is, of course, impossible to watch everything at an Olympic Games and, as individuals and nations, we all have our favourite events and those we simply don’t ‘get’. It’s all part of the fun, though, to discover sports for the first time in four years or, in some cases, for the first time ever. And while there’s been a vast amount of comment, opinion and reporting on Rio de Janeiro as host city and the International Olympic Committee as organiser, the Games also provide a vital showcase for the international sports federations. What follows, then, is a collection of thoughts about the sports that made the Games through a British lens, with an eye on how each was presented and what changes ought to be considered before, amid a rather different broadcast landscape (hello, Eurosport!), the world reconvenes at Tokyo 2020.


The Olympic schedule means the swimming events are front-loaded and the problem with that is by the time the Games end, it can be a bit of a struggle to remember everything that happened in the pool – although the exploits of Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky are hard to forget. A bigger problem for the UK was that the swimming finals all took place in the small hours, so the sport did not get the kind of showcase enjoyed by the likes of cycling and gymnastics (that’s not a criticism of the scheduling, by the way; the Olympics is a global events and as a viewer sometimes the scheduling works in your favour and sometimes it doesn’t). The diving finals were on at a much more accessible time and while the BBC’s coverage was generally excellent, it was one of many Olympic events where there was a clear struggle to find the right balance between covering the action and acting as cheerleader for British athletes. Water polo, what little I saw of it, continues to look absolutely brutal: what happens in the pool, stays in the pool.


Archery seems to get its fair share of interesting Olympic venues – Lord’s cricket ground four years ago in London and this time round Rio’s Sambadrome, home of Carnival – but it’s fair, I think, to say there are still challenges around making it a truly compelling television sport for a mass audience. That’s my excuse, anyway.


Thanks to the time difference with the UK, athletics felt a little bit of a sideshow at these Games. With most of the key action well after midnight, my athletics viewing was restricted largely to BBC online highlights packages each morning. Perhaps, given the sport’s current reputation, a moment out of the primetime spotlight as it gets its house in order is no bad thing. Timezone apart, Alan Abrahamson wrote a piece well worth reading on the somewhat disjointed track and field scheduling and with innovations such as staging field events in the centre of cities starting to filter into the thoughts of major championship organisers it would be a surprise – and a shame – if the athletics programme at Tokyo 2020 doesn’t have a substantially different look and feel.


Didn’t really catch much badminton. As an Olympic viewer you have to make your picks and there always seemed to be something more eye-catching available to watch.


A Team USA benefit in both the men’s and women’s competitions – but this time round there didn’t seem to be quite the same international buzz around the collection of cruise ship-dwelling NBA stars brought together to take gold back to America.


The judging system baffles me – and clearly I’m not alone in that regard – but the three and four-round format works well as a broadcast package. As a sport, though, boxing has far bigger problems than how it’s presented.


A sport that tended to take place during daylight hours in Brazil and therefore worked well for a +4 hours timezone, it’s fun to watch, pretty easy to comprehend, and looks spectacular, especially the slalom and sprints. A sprinkling of surprise British success won’t have hurt either.


You may remember there was a time, a few years back, when cycling wasn’t a mainstream sport in the UK. At these Games, nearly all of the action from the velodrome was delivered live in primetime on one of the BBC’s main channels – despite the sensational gold rush, at times it even felt a touch like overkill; although the BBC’s team of Sir Chris Hoy, Chris Boardman and Simon Brotherton made for a brilliant broadcast squad, other sports struggled to get a look-in during the crucial primetime coverage. It’s a measure, perhaps, of just how brilliant British Cycling has been in developing a generation of serial Olympic winners. The BMX? It’s wacky, but really works as a TV spectacle.


The multitude of different disciplines and the time the various competitions take can make the equestrian events a bit tricky to follow – there always seemed to be a horse jumping over something whenever I flicked through the red button options – but there should always, always be room in the Olympics for a sport that allows a 58-year old to win a gold medal.


I watched a fair bit of fencing in the opening few days of the Games, certainly setting a PB for my own fencing consumption at an Olympic Games. It’s a much slicker broadcast package than I remember: the lighting in the arena gave a real sense of a duel and the graphics package a sport all about speed straightforward to follow.

Field hockey

From a British perspective, there’ll likely never be a better opportunity to promote the sport and increase participation than immediately after two hours of live coverage of a gold medal-winning British team on BBC1, smack bang in the middle of primetime on a Friday night. The penalty shootout format is – was – one of sport’s great hidden secrets. It made for sensational TV.


The Olympic football tournament did ultimately produce one of the moments of the Games but it does feel a bit out of place, or at least the men’s under-23 competition does. A revitalising format change could be for the Games to include a beach soccer or futsal tournament instead.


I’m not quite sure how it happened, but the men’s golf tournament – blighted beforehand by a perceived lack of interest and multiple withdrawals – ultimately produced one of the best head-to-heads of the Games, between Henrik Stenson, the Open champion, and Justin Rose, the game’s biggest cheerleader for Olympic inclusion. Looking ahead to Tokyo, however, I’d still favour a matchplay format over a regular stroke play tournament. A mixed team matchplay event, for example, would also probably lead to more decisive, easy-to-package moments and greater coverage on the main networks.


While athletics and swimming suffered with an awkward timezone, this might just have been as close to a perfect Olympics for British Gymnastics as it gets. A series of medal-winning British performances and the crowning of a genuine global superstar in the tiny form of the magical Simone Biles, all broadcast back to Britain in primetime, gave gymnastics the kind of exposure it can usually only dream of in the UK. The competitions and scoring can be difficult to follow, especially in the all-around contests, but the action is never less than spectacular.


An all-action sport that’s great fun to watch but, inevitably, in the absence of a British team, it received limited exposure on the main BBC channels during the Games. That’s a real shame: I’d say it’s a perfect sport for schools – fast, aggressive and occasionally even a bit violent. There’s a funding question here, too, but perhaps that’s one for another day.


I still don’t fully understand the rules of judo and while there was a fair amount of BBC coverage of the British contenders, it all felt to me slightly low-key.

Modern pentathlon 

With so much else going on in the final few days of the Games, it’s hard to keep on top of the modern pentathlon events. And, frankly, I didn’t manage to.


The lagoon venue might have been a nightmare at times for the competitors but it looked absolutely stunning on television – kudos to the Olympic Broadcasting Services crew who set up the high shot of Christ the Reedemer overlooking the start of one of the medal races last week. Credit, too, to FISA, the sport’s governing body, for somehow managing to get the schedule back on track after effectively losing two days to the weather.


This was everything everyone expected it to be: a roaring success. Huge credit must go to World Rugby for the way they have embraced their Olympic debut over the past seven years and building a strategic growth plan around the Games. Sevens is sport ideally packaged for the modern world and, better still, in the UK the key matches were timed nicely in primetime to provide the ideal showcase. Fiji’s first Olympic gold medal was the icing on the cake, even if it came at the expense of Team GB.


Sailing tries, it really, really tries. But, short of the multi-million dollar investment in graphics and real-time telemetry by events such as the America’s Cup, it still struggles as a live TV product. That’s a great shame, particularly as it seemed the BBC was unable to give British sailing gold medal winners the same kind of exposure or coverage as those from other sports. It’s not a new problem, but a problem it remains.


Shooting’s a tricky one. It’s not a natural television product and therefore tends to face the same kind of challenges as sailing and archery at an Olympic Games: a fight for exposure. I thought this was an interesting piece by Bloomberg’s David Biller, on another battle US Olympic shooters face: to secure sponsors in a country beset by a major problem with guns.

Table tennis

Another sport that somehow passed me by this time round: I’m sure there were some fantastic rallies, though, which will pop up on YouTube over the coming weeks and months.


Plenty of primetime taekwondo on the BBC from Rio, thanks to the exploits of Jade Jones and co. But while it’s clearly technically and physically demanding, is it just me or is taekwondo just a little bit dull to watch? Perhaps it’s just the high quality of the Olympic field, but it seemed to me that in any given bout both fighters spent the whole time attempting to execute the same move – and, simultaneously, defend that same critical move. That said, it’s a sport that can provide moments of high human drama: I was massively impressed by Lutalo Muhammad’s dignified and level-headed response to his last-second defeat when he was interviewed the day after.


With everything else going on it can be hard to follow the early stages of the tennis tournaments, but, hearteningly for an Olympic sport that has its critics, the players have really come to care about the Olympic Games. The final stages of both men’s and women’s singles tournaments were utterly compelling and, in Monica Puig’s gold and the Murray/Del Potro final, provided a couple of great stories.


The triathlon seems like a mainstay of the Games, so it’s always a surprise to be reminded it only made its debut in 2000. The men’s and women’s events in Rio were another chance for OBS to play tourist guide for Brazil – a role it also played extremely well with its coverage of the cycling road races. I’d echo the views of others, however, by suggesting adding national team colours to the swimming hats; the swim section of the race is a great spectacle, but it’s nigh-on impossible to follow.


Beach volleyball on Copacabana was always going to be a hit (a little joke, there, for the aficionados…) and it provided some of the best broadcast images of the Games – even if, for a British audience, the meaty parts of the tournaments took place overnight. I’m not sure I caught a second of the indoor tournament, though, which is perhaps indicative of the struggle the sport faces to balance up the profile of its two formats and to truly breakthrough in the UK.


Is there a reason weightlifting competitions need to be held in what tend to be innocuous-looking and often badly-lit halls? Surely there’d be more atmosphere and excitement about a tournament held in a city’s major square or on the beach, World’s Strongest Man-style?


Wrestling is not an Olympic sport you see a lot of on the BBC, at least without clicking a red button. I did catch a glimpse of it, though, while in Germany briefly last week, as ZDF switched away from the cycling omnium points race with two laps left to take in a live bout. It was a reminder of how different levels of importance are attached to different sports in different markets sports and of just how an enormous an Olympic Games is. As a viewer, it’s quite the test of endurance. Well done, you made it to the finish line.


Feel free to get in touch via email – davidcushnan@gmail.com – or on Twitter: @DavidCushnan


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