Reshaping the Olympics media coverage through innovation

Dr José Luis Rojas Torrijos

Associate Professor, Department of Journalism II, Universidad de Sevilla, Spain. His research focuses on sports journalism, ethics and stylebooks. 

Twitter: @rojastorrijos


Section 2: Media Coverage & Representation

Tokyo 2020 confirmed again how technology changed forever the ways legacy sports outlets report about the Games and how we follow and interact around the mega event.

In the age of mobile devices and social platforms, celebrity athletes and the so-called ‘attention economy’, legacy and digital native sports media battle for relevancy in a very contested race for building communities and generating more revenue. In this context, traditional sports news outlets usually seize every mega event celebration as an unbeatable opportunity to develop a more innovative coverage that help them stand out, promote themselves as media brands and better reach their target audiences.

A few decades after sports journalism was underrated as ‘toy department‘, this field has become a real testing ground of digital formats, technology-enhanced news storytelling, and creative initiatives and solutions to engage audiences. In so many ways sports media are nowadays at the forefront of the innovation in journalism, which is more evident every time the Olympics take place.

The Games represent a chance for sports media outlets to do something different, reshape their coverage and diversify the agenda. Journalists may dive into stories and protagonists they normally can’t find time for during the regular season, and develop a more explanatory and data-driven approach to help audiences understand the keys around non-mainstream disciplines and know about what happens on the ground beyond results and post-event quotes from athletes. It is ages since the coverage of sport mega events has changed forever and so did the ways we follow the action and interact around the Games. Tokyo 2020 just came to confirm all this.

Apart from several technological innovations carried out on TV via OBS during last Olympics such as multi-camera replays, virtual 3D graphics or live and on-demand 180° stereoscopic and 360° panoramic images, legacy media adapted again their journalism to digital platforms and mobile screens, and exhibited outstanding interactive pieces, immersive features as well as sophisticated data visualizations and gamified content. This wide range of innovative workflow was mainly produced by larger newsrooms with deep-rooted graphics and visual journalism departments like Financial Times, O Globo, El País, L’Équipe, and, above all, The Washington Post and The New York Times

As these legacy media had already demonstrated in 2016 Rio and 2018 PyeongChang Olympics coverage, immersive storytelling can be captivating and effective for feature stories where the viewer can go deeper into a topic, familiar or not, and feel closer to the atmosphere of the event at the same time. For these reporting purposes, The Post published an interactive supported by videos and augmented reality to explain three new Olympic sports at Tokyo (climbing, skateboarding and surf). Meanwhile, NYTimes launched a series of interactive articles visualizing the extraordinary techniques of four athletes by using video and motion capture data during training sessions to create virtual and animated models. Both cases were produced by a multidisciplinary team of reporters, videographers, developers and animators who worked closely for months and even years. This means that innovation in journalism requires a plan.

Some of those new forms of digital narrative exhibited during the Tokyo Olympics were explainers that integrated infographics and full-screen video formats into responsive scrollytelling stories to help audiences understand the challenges that athletes face and get insight into what elements can make the difference to achieve a gold medal. The Frech sports outlet L’Équipe displayed an interactive 3D animated video to decode the most difficult acrobatic figures performed by the gymnast Simone Biles, while NYTimes took readers to a locomotor performance lab to reveal why speed and distance dictate the way Olympians run. Even The Post produced an interactive feature to examine Katie Ledecky’s key strenghts in swimming. In all these beautifully-wrapped pieces, however, the starting point was gathering information from interviews to expert sources. This means that innovation does not come to substitute but to enhance traditional reporting. 

Tokyo Olympics coverage also illustrated that data-driven and interpretative visualizations may offer new approaches around the event and give added value to audiences. NYtimes elaborated composite images to show positions of medalists at several moments in track and field races in order to visualize the speed of athletes and examine their perfomance throughout the finals. Or Financial Times created an alternative medal table that ranked countries by the difference to the tally they were expected to achieve, according to a mathematical model that took into account their economic, social and political characteristics. 

Once more during the Games, innovation proved to be a steady workflow for multi-platform digital storytelling in which legacy sports media have become leading performers.