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HD Olympics: A look behind the scenes

We take a tour through the International Broadcast Centre at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, plus see some of the technology employed at the Olympic venues.

Pam Carroll
Former editor of CNET Australia, Pam loves being in the thick of the ever-growing love affair (well addiction, really) that Australians have with their phones, digital cameras, flat screen TVs, and all things tech.
Pam Carroll
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Every four years, the Olympic Games provide a showcase for the world's best sporting talent; but with the billions of global viewers it attracts, it's also become the front line for new broadcasting technologies.

Significantly, the 2008 Games in Beijing has been the first to broadcast 100 per cent of the competition in 1080i high definition. The teams behind this effort are almost as vast as those that support the athletes. CNET.com.au travelled to Beijing as a guest of Panasonic, an official worldwide Olympic partner, to see some of the facilities and equipment that are breaking new records on the technology front.

The 24-hour command central of the television coverage is housed at Olympic Park in the International Broadcast Centre (IBC). It is home to 16,000 accredited staff from 180 broadcast media organisations from around the globe. US broadcaster NBC alone brought a team of 3,000 to Beijing, including their own Starbucks coffee crew.

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The IBC is littered with TVs to catch all the action. Panasonic claims to have installed 10,000 panels throughout the IBC and at all of the official Olympic facilities.

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Some 44 feeds are sent back from the 37 Olympic venues to the IBC. From there the Panasonic-supplied professional edit controllers and digital AV mixers facilitate live broadcasts or highlights packages as required by the individual broadcast organisations.

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As well as video, the Audio Centre at the IBC distributes high-definition 5.1 surround sound to HD broadcasters.

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This Commentary Switching Centre is the point where local broadcasters can mix their own commentary from AV supplied by the IBC. Each colour code represents a different Olympic venue.

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The Video Tape Recording Archive performs the important function of preserving every recorded moment of the games. The video of all performances belong to the IOC for safekeeping, but teams may request footage for review and analysis.

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As the host nation, China has competitors in every event. Broadcaster CCTV, China Central Television, has a small army covering them all.

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Australia's Channel Seven had its home base on Level One. Weary staffers heading for lunch had been putting in long days for over three weeks.

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Panasonic's sponsorship includes the provision of 250 recorders, 100 camcorders, and 1,500 monitors for the 2008 Games. Panasonic's DVCPRO HD is the official recording format. The camera equipment no longer uses videotape, but rather accommodates slots for up to five rewritable P2 memory cards with storage capacities up to 64GB. The solid-state cards perform in Bejing's extreme temperatures and with no moving parts, they can withstand vibrations in tough-to-video events such as sailing. They can be interchanged without interrupting the shooting and be viewed and edited instantly.

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The number of cameras set up at the venues is incredible. This cameraman at the volleyball centre covered all the action from the back of the court.

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Small remote-controlled cameras were set up in places to catch the action where humans couldn't, such as at the top of this volleyball net.

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Microphones ringed many courts to record surround sound.

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Yes, the camera operators see all the action, but at the beach volleyball, they had to withstand 30-degree heat and humidity...

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...Not to mention the sand and getting pinged by a fast-moving ball from a stray spike.

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Not all cameras used came from Panasonic, as each broadcaster was free to use its own equipment. We saw this Canon camera at the Judo finals.

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Panasonic also supplied 25 Astrovision display systems at 18 Beijing venues. These panels now use high-intensity LEDs instead of previously used fluorescent tubes, which Panasonic claims reduces power consumption by more than 75 per cent compared with the models they used at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996.

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The screen at the Water Cube displayed its share of record-breaking action. Most venues had two screens at opposite ends of the seating, alternately displaying results in Chinese and English. In addition to the screens, Panasonic provided 284 audio systems in 41 venues.

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Not all venues had 16:9 widescreens. Panasonic supplied some conventional 4:3 screens based on the requests of the Beijing Olympic Committee.

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Although not part of the Panasonic Olympic partnership, some of the most impressive large screens were built into Pangu Plaza, the "dragon-like" commercial complex adjacent to the Olympic Park. There were screens on either side of the dragon's head building, smaller screens atop each building segment of the body, and a very large screen at ground level in between. The complex boasts of housing a seven-star hotel as well.

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The seven mega screens of Pangu Plaza were amazingly crisp and were particularly impressive at night.

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