As global viewers waited with bated breath in early February to see whether Japanese figure skater Hanyu Yuzuru would nail a legendary quadruple axel during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, it was likely that few would have considered the amount of behind-the-scenes work needed to bring those images to their screens.

The Olympic Winter Games were as much of a challenge for the host city and organizers as they were for the athletes. From venue set-up, accommodation arrangements, health and safety protocols, broadcasting requirements, to medal ceremonies and merchandise sales it has been a tough logistical puzzle for all those involved, amid the covid-19 pandemic and its accompanying restrictions on spectators, athletes, and staff alike.

Digital transformation, however, provided some relief. Technology services such as communications, content delivery, and production were all migrated to the cloud, which allowed broadcasting and information sharing to proceed smoothly despite strict covid protocols.

“Much of the physical infrastructure has been replaced with cloud-based services, significantly reducing hardware costs while at the same time improving performance levels,” says Jeff Zhang, president of Alibaba Cloud Intelligence, a unit of Alibaba Group that managed the services. The migration allowed organizers to streamline their work, lessening the host city’s burden of building extensive IT infrastructure, adds Zhang. Event managers were also able to make decisions based on real-time information, leveraging digital technologies such as AI to get a better picture of how everything was progressing.  

From venue to screen

Most significantly, the Olympic Winter Games increased its use of cloud technology to broadcast events globally. Traditionally, getting the Olympics onto people’s screens required expensive international telecommunication optical circuits, as well as sizeable news and broadcast crews who had to be flown into the host city. But the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) did things differently. For the first time, during the Olympic Winter Games, broadcasters were able to receive live footage through a public cloud—a more agile option that costs a fraction of the price of other transmission methods. Live Cloud is part of OBS Cloud, a joint broadcasting solution of OBS and Alibaba that was pioneered during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and adopted as a standard service during Beijing 2022.

“Most organizations have been forced to carry out production and distribution workflows from home and, during the crisis, rely on cloud services to support their newly remote production,” says Raquel Rozados, director of broadcaster services at OBS. Compared to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Beijing’s Winter Games saw a reduction of almost 40% in on-site broadcast personnel.

For the first time, broadcasters could remotely edit Olympic sports footage on the cloud, creating social media-friendly clips from live sessions in real time. Multi-camera replay systems were used for freeze-frame slow-motion playbacks from a wide range of angles, creating an immersive viewing experience. OBS says it produced over 6,000 hours of high-definition content, made available to over 20 broadcasters around the world. While processing such a large amount of ultra-high-definition footage would have previously posed a significant challenge to broadcasters, the cloud made delivery and editing far more manageable.

Being able to download high-quality footage from the cloud meant that broadcasters saved on flying teams of journalists, producers, camera operators, and equipment into Beijing to cover the event. It was just as well, as covid-19 regulations complicated travel, which the International Olympic Committee has pointed to as the biggest contributor to the event’s carbon footprint. “Overall and wider than just applying cloud technologies to broadcasting, migrating the Games’ core systems to the cloud is an important progress in making the games more efficient and sustainable,” says Zhang.

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By: MIT Technology Review Insights
Title: Winter Olympics  cloud technology sets a different record
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Published Date: Thu, 17 Mar 2022 20:28:32 +0000