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How news publishers are using the Olympics as a storytelling proving ground

The Olympics have always been about the sports personalities – now broadcasters are proving it

The Olympic Games are a huge draw for broadcasters and publishers. The evergreen allure of live sport and ramped-up engagement from audiences make the weeks of the Games especially valuable. This year, though, with limited access, some teams are amending their plans – and discovering value outside of the events themselves.

This year’s Olympics are unusual for any number of reasons, from the new sports on show to the delay of the event itself. While broadcasters and blogs have been able to accommodate those changes, the reality of these pandemic-hit games means that many brands have had to amend their plans.

From restrictions in terms of accessibility to arenas to some of the individual events being canceled, broadcasters have been forced to cover these Games in a very different way.

Will Woodward, head of sport at The Guardian, says: “The restrictions placed on reporters covering the Games will clearly make coverage more difficult. Under the rules, most of our reporting team – the reporters coming from the UK – are subject to three days of quarantine in their hotels and can only travel on approved journeys for the following 11 days.

“The threat of being pinged is real and ever-present. However, we are confident that with the experienced, talented and versatile team we have out there we can make the best of a very difficult situation.”

Despite that, the newspaper’s Tokyo correspondent Justin McCurry was the only ‘western’ journalist to cover the first action of the Games, a softball match in Fukushima, while Suzanne Wrack was the only British newspaper reporter at Team GB’s first women’s football match in Sapporo. The Games this year, then, are difficult but not impossible to cover.

While the restrictions might have been a technical challenge, they may also turn out to have been a blessing in disguise for some publishers. Many sports outlets are counting on telling individual sports stars’ stories to connect with new audiences, which is vital as the competition for subscriptions heats up.

Scott Young is senior vice-president, content and production, at Discovery Sports. He explains that the strictures in place around fan access and broadcast opportunities this year have enabled his team to concentrate on telling those individual stories: “Our role is to tell the story of athletes’ Olympic Games journeys. Their journeys at these Games are slightly more complex, which is also part of the story. How do they come to Japan, prepare, train and then compete under the strict environment we have? That’s a challenge not only for the athletes but for the people trying to tell their stories.

That personal connection is also behind some of the new editorial products offered by broadcasters in the run-up to the Games itself. Discovery, for example, has launched an exclusive podcast with two members of Team GB – though a Discovery Sports spokesman says the podcast itself will not be monetized. It will, however, act as "a strong marketing asset to bring people to our full Olympic Games offer."

The Guardian, too, is highlighting the athletes as well as the Games itself. It has launched a raft of Olympic-specific editorial products including new columnists Olympic gold medal winner Greg Rutherford, Team GB boxer Caroline Dubois and Rio 2016 gold medal-winning rugby sevens coach Ben Ryan.

Proving a point

As with previous years, the raw footage of the events themselves are delivered by the Olympic Broadcasting Service (OBS). It’s the same system of the organization running the on-the-ground feeds that is widely used at other sporting events, including during the Euros earlier this month – and is also behind the BBC’s recent coverage woes.

In that respect, the day-to-day coverage of the Games will be seamless for viewers in different countries, and dependent on the broadcaster of their choice. Discovery Sport, for example, has 56 individual live sport streams running simultaneously.

What is different is that the restrictions imposed by Covid are offering broadcasters and publishers a proof point for their remote capabilities.

Young says: “We still have a notable presence on-site in Tokyo but greater production back in our ‘home’ markets in Europe – such as the UK, Germany and Spain. However, this was the plan prior to Covid considerations. The advancements of technology have been allowing remote production to take place and have had a greater positive impact over the last few years. Covid may have accelerated remote production but it has nothing to do with it. Remote production was around before Covid and it’s here to stay because it’s a great innovation.”

So while viewers might not notice anything untoward with the Olympics broadcasts beyond some missing events and empty stadiums, they will reap the benefits of the behind-the-scenes experiment in the future. So too will the broadcasters and newspapers, who have demonstrated they can turn a potential downside to their advantage when it comes to profiling the stars that get audiences (and advertisers) interested.

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