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SURF THIS

This Olympic year, NBC got it right-online and off

September 1, 2008

SURF THIS This Olympic year, NBC got it right-online and off

I already miss the Olympics. Perhaps due to my overactive patriotic gene, the overdeveloped sports fan gene, or the finetuned sucker-for-agood-story gene (or some combination of all three), I found the entire event strangely compelling.

I've paid attention to the Olympics before, but this year it had some captivating affect on me that was altogether new. I found I could watch beach volleyball or fencing with equal enthusiasm. I watched handball matches (which was not at all the game I'd pictured in my head). I even watched some of the trampoline competition, for Pete's sake. Laugh all you want...until you've seen it. It's amazing.

I've had some difficulty determining if it was the utter magnitude of this year's event, the stage constructed by China as both platform for the athletics and springboard for one massively orchestrated, international public relations campaign, or just the athletics themselves. You certainly can't deny the former had an impact.

The Chinese government spent some $40 billion on the infrastructure needed to play host, essentially re-imagining what a sports complex could be and rebuilding a city in the process. It would be impossible to be unimpressed with either the aquatic cube or the bird's nest (or any number of other structures gracing the skyline). You would have had to have missed the opening ceremonies entirely not to have been somewhat in awe of the sheer spectacle. So they faked some fireworks and lip-synced a performance or two ... the result was still astounding.

On television, Bob Costas put his considerable talent on display consistently for nearly 20 days, providing a knowledgeable and steady host for the broadcast. There are always a few vignettes profiling back stories that make you roll your eyes a bit, but this year they seemed to be the exception rather than the norm. Instead, we were treated to just enough knowledge and information on both athletes and the events to generate a fair amount of interest in even the most obscure details. And, even better, the "experts" were wrong as much as they were right, causing great stories to emerge unbidden from the playing field itself, fully embodying the beauty, majesty, and unpredictability of sport as a human endeavor.

For example, no one imagined a 33-yearold mother winning a silver medal in vault. We couldn't have predicted our men's gymnastics team, two members short, would dig deep and rally for a bronze medal. And absolutely no one has ever dreamed of seeing a performance like Usain Bolt provided in the 100m dash, when he left the competition lengths behind and set a world record while decelerating across the finish line. It was extraordinary.

As was the coverage provided by NBC and its online companion, NBCOlympics (www.nbcolympics.com). Online, NBC gave all of us the option of seeing each of these events as often as we liked. The site boasted complete videos of all the competition, allowing every fan of every sport, no matter how obscure, to follow the action on their own schedule. Every bit of content was (and still is) available for free, much of it in fairly high-quality streaming video. For instance, I watched a full night of gymnastics online, the day after it was broadcast.

The news coverage was also outstanding, providing as much detail and back story as you'd find anywhere, essentially creating the best online resource for nearly any story related to the event. There are extensive slideshows, more video clips than it seems possible to watch, and in-depth reporting of both sport and athlete designed to increase awareness and interest across the board.

We have four years to wait for the next Summer Olympics and almost two years for the Winter Olympics. I trust NBC views the Internet as a valuable partner in enhancing its broadcasts and will embrace this success as a stepping stone to something even better for Vancouver and London. As for me, I can hardly wait to see where things will go...but I'll tend to my impatience with highlights from Beijing. (Have you seen Matthew Mitcham's final dive on the 10m platform to win the gold over China's Zhou Luxin? Phenomenal. And you can see it right now, with just a few clicks.)
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Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.
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