At eight p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, the Olympic Games at long last arrived in China. Marking the official commencement of the opening ceremonies at the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, the auspicious moment was ripe with symbolism and jubilation.
The exhilarating scenes were transmitted to living rooms across the world by a team of broadcasters that claimed they were producing “the first truly digital Games.” By some measures, this is true. A report by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) revealed after the event’s conclusion that a total of 8.2 billion people viewed websites of official broadcasters providing video coverage of the Games, blowing records set at Athens 2004 out of the water.
However, a great deal has changed in the years that have elapsed since Beijing last served as host. When the Olympic cauldron is lit for the second time in China with the start of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics on February 4, the images will be beamed across a world transformed by the forces of digitalization.
Whereas in 2008, the prevailing narrative depicted the Olympics as China’s chance to shine on the international stage and make the case for itself as a strong and prosperous nation, the 2022 Games will be broadcast globally through cloud services offered by one of the country’s own leading tech firms, Alibaba.
The partnership between Alibaba and the IOC began in 2017 and is set to carry through until at least 2028. Under the arrangement, Alibaba serves as the official partner responsible for cloud services and e-commerce platform services needed to carry out the massive logistics undertaking that is the Olympic Games. During an event at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, IOC President Thomas Bach said: “This is a ground-breaking, innovative alliance, and will help drive efficiencies in the organization of the Olympic Games through 2028, whilst also supporting the global development of digital opportunities.”
The postponed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, which concluded last August, were the first Games to be held during this high-stakes partnership.
Among the key byproducts of Alibaba’s partnership with the organization has been the establishment of OBS Cloud, the new all-digital platform used to manage content produced by the Olympic Broadcasting Services.
The head of OBS, Yiannis Exarchos, said at the Tokyo Games that the transfer of content onto the cloud “is perhaps the biggest technological change in the broadcasting industry for more than half a century since the introduction of satellite transmission, which was introduced to Olympic broadcast coverage for the first time at Tokyo 1964,” according to a report by Inside the Games.
Broadcasting the entire Olympics is no small feat. The recent Tokyo Games produced roughly 9,000 hours of video content, representing a 30% rise from the previous summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. Cloud technology represents the core driver of this trend, as it enables more efficient data transfer and storage, endowing secondary broadcasters with access to more livestream angles and raw footage.
The upcoming Games in Beijing will be the second held amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, which has upended global travel networks that the Olympics rely on. Although some broadcasting personnel will be allowed to enter the city’s strict closed-loop management protocol – which aims to eliminate personal contact between visitors and locals – sleek Olympic footage fit for public broadcasting can now be produced more easily from remote settings, with the help of cloud services.
An extensive list of rights holding broadcasters (RHBs) can now access all original content through OBS Cloud. They can also use the platform to edit and compile video content, adapting and packaging it to fit local viewers.
Alibaba’s deepening partnership with the IOC comes amid growing tensions between China and the United States in the field of technology. Earlier this month, Reuters reported that individuals in the Biden administration are mulling measures to restrict the activities of Alibaba, given concerns that its cloud services could present a national security threat.
Despite these potential setbacks, Alibaba’s association with the Olympics represents a key milestone in the firm’s ongoing efforts to internationalize its brand.
A critical challenge that has faced the IOC and top broadcasters has been the delay of the Tokyo Games by one year, which shortened the gap between summer and winter Olympics to just a few months, as opposed to the traditional year and a half.
During an interview last February, OBS chief technology officer Sotiris Salamouris lamented: “it’s going to be difficult for all our crews because essentially this means that from this March, for one whole year it will be constantly in operational mode, almost without break.”
Salamouris, who also served as a key technical officer for official broadcasting at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, also offered some optimistic sentiment: “Beijing is a unique place, and very close to our hearts… I’m really excited that I’m giving people an opportunity to be there again in the context of the Olympics.”