On your marks, get set, go
TV crews at the European Championships have got their work cut out.
Sunday 23 August 1998
Five years in the planning, television coverage of the European athletics championships presents logistical and technical problems unique among sports. "Athletics is like trying to cover a dozen different sports at the same time," according to Dave Gordon, editor of the BBC's 37 hours of coverage from Budapest this week.
While Sky Sports might dedicate at least 20 cameras to coverage of their Premier League football matches, the positioning and direction of those cameras for a game of soccer is, in the main, predictable for experienced television producers. They, at least, know they have to follow just the one ball in play at any one time. The essential variety of track and field offers a number of different challenges. During last night's evening session of athletics in Budapest, cameras from the host broadcasters, Magyar TV, were required to track the contenders in a men's 800-metre race, meanwhile follow the progress of the javelin section of the women's heptathlon, and simultaneously capture every throw in the women's hammer final. Here was an all-action sporting equivalent of the three-ring circus.
Elsewhere in the stadium, beneath three giant arc lights in the "mixed zone", an area just under the rim of the terracing at the end of the home straight, there are more cameras. This is where the press meet competitors immediately after their event, and where most of Europe's major broadcasters have set up dedicated cameras to feed those breathless (and usually facile, rarely illuminating) post-race interviews. The mixed zone and nearby IBC - or International Broadcast Centre - is a modern-day, hi-tech, digital Tower of Babel, presenting another set of logistical problems for the Hungarians.
A total of 68 different broadcast companies had to be provided for at the championships - each one wanting the athletes from their country, however obscure or low ranked, to be covered exhaustively. And each broadcaster brings with them an entourage of commentators, summarisers, statisticians, spotters, producers and presenters. All have to be accommodated - usually in the best five-star hotels - and fed and watered, and all will also require to be supplied with a constant stream of result sheets, start sheets and biographical information.
The BBC's team of around 60 is able to provide for itself in many respects, having set up a trackside studio and placed four cameras in the arena to shoot, edit and feed a package direct to London. "We want to be seen to be here," says Martin Webster, the producer in charge of BBC athletics. "Des can look down at the track and react to things as they happen, we can get athletes into the studio after events for more considered interviews. It's what viewers expect."
The four extra cameras also give the BBC the chance to customise its coverage to suit a British audience. For last night's sprint relays, the dedicated close-ups of the British team high-speed baton changes, would have been provided by the BBC's own camera high above the stadium. "When you've got the amount of airtime we have this week, you need some insurance," Webster says. "It allows us to editorialise, by picking out the British competitors, or other protagonists."
The Nep stadium is nearly a half-century old, a vast, crumbling concrete monument to the Eastern Bloc, and offers few modern technological amenities for television. So a condominium of Portakabins have been erected under the stands to house offices for the broadcasters, while more than two dozen "scanners", the huge trucks that serve as mobile command centres.
The wiring and cabling has turned the Nep into an electronic cat's cradle. The estimate - and no one knows for sure - of the amount of cabling used around the stadium is that there is more than the distance of the longest event - the 50km walk. On top of this is the coverage that followed the marathon runners on their 26-mile trek around Budapest, using a dozen more cameras: some mobile, others at fixed stations on the city's roads, and two aboard helicopters.
The broadcasters' greatest fear has been a power cut. Earlier in the summer, when the BBC broadcast from the European Cup in St Petersburg, all the monitors and equipment cut-out just 20 minutes before they were due to go live for the first time. In steamy Budapest, electrical storms have buzzed about the stadium on a near-daily basis. There is a back-up generator for television, and as Webster says: "There's Plan A, Plan B, and everything going down to Plan X." The metal gantries and equipment have not yet conducted any lightning into the Nep, but that would be just the sort of added spark of excitement no one will want during this afternoon's final session.
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