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Sport as spectacle: Why Olympic glory has to be a collective experience

By Dafydd Rees
29 July 2021

By Dafydd Rees

I didn’t realise I needed the Olympics so much until they started. The past week has served to reinforce sport’s unrivalled capacity to inspire and enthral in equal measure.

The success of Britain’s athletes in the first few days of the Tokyo Games has been a tonic for a nation weighed down by the disruption and isolation of the pandemic.    

Ahead of the opening ceremony, the media narrative was all about the lack of crowds and a Japanese public opposed to the idea of the whole event going ahead. 

The gold rush that brought us #OlympicGran and #TeamTom has wiped all that way and given us the feelgood factor. Victories for the likes of Tom Daley, Adam Peaty, Tom Dean and Tom Pidcock have set new Olympic records and created new sporting icons.

Yet, the biggest problem for the nation in sharing in that elation is that, due to different time zones and the issue of broadcast rights, we’ve not been able to fully share in that sense of triumph and joy. 

The importance of live sport as a spectacle was reinforced by the recent UEFA European Football Championship tournament. 25 million people tuned in to watch England play Italy in the final. That Wembley penalty shoot-out is a collective moment in time which few will be able to forget for years to come.

Adam Peaty may have made sporting history in the 100m breaststroke final, winning  Team GB’s first gold as well as retaining his Olympic title, but at 3am in the morning UK time, there were very few British sporting fans to witness the event beyond his immediate friends and family.

UK viewers are also being deprived of the bewildering variety of an Olympic Games, unless they are prepared to pay a subscription to Discovery+ for the privilege.

Over the course of the Games, there are well over 330 events taking place in over 40 venues and involving 33 sports, including for the first time, surfing and climbing. It’s an experience only broadcasting can truly capture.

And yet the BBC has been restricted to showing just two live sports at any one time. It’s led inevitably to viewer complaints and invidious choices being made by TV producers to choose one sport over another.

At London 2012 and at Rio in 2016, the Corporation was able to share every minute of the action on screen with dozens of different livestreams. In 2024 at the Paris Olympics free to air access is set to be restricted even further. 

The next European broadcast rights negotiations are set to be an acid test both for the BBC and the International Olympic Committee with significant long-term implications for future generations of athletes and fans.

The UK won only one gold medal in Atlanta in 1996. Thanks to national lottery funding, more than 100 gold medals have been won in the past twenty-five years by British athletes.

British athletes need and deserve to know that their sporting triumph is being viewed by us all, as a shared experience and celebration. We need widely accessible coverage of the Olympics to be viewed as a national asset now more than ever.