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Olympics Notebook 2018 -- streaming and Curling

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Every 2 years I watch the Olympics and publish notes on the games, or in particular the coverage. Each time the technology has changed and that alters the coverage.

This year the big change is much more extensive and refined availability of streaming coverage. Since I desire to "cut the cord" and have no cable or satellite, this has become more important. Unfortunately the story is not all good.

Local recording is still by FAR the best

I am still watching most of the games via recordings on my hard disk of the over the air NBC coverage. Using a local hard disk recording is so vastly superior to anything else that there's little comparison. These abilities, which are not available in streaming or "cloud DVR" are so seductive you can't go back:

  • Instantaneous seek to quickly move through 5 hour live recordings to find just what I want
  • Instantaneous short jumps (MythTV lets me program the length) to quickly skip from the end of a run to the revelation of the score. Similarly to skip over timeouts and other boring sections.
  • Smooth 2x and 3x fast forward, so you can follow things as they go. (Would be nice if captions were easy to add.)
  • Smooth 1x-2x fast forward with sped-up pitch-adjusted audio. I watch most slower moving thins at about 1.3x
  • Decent high-speed fast forward to go through an event (like Skiing or luge) looking for "the good parts."
  • Automatic detection and removal of commercials, or easy quick skipping.
  • Instantaneous skip back, slow motion when I want it etc.

Once you have these, it's hard to go back. Streaming is nice, but seeks are far from instant, and often involve a drop of video quality. They could offer the smooth FF and audio speed-up but at present nobody does.

The streams

Worst of all, most streams come with forced commercials, and to make it worse, they often force the same commercial again and again and again and again and again and again because they just have not sold enough of them. I know you need to pay for your coverage, and I would give you money if you would let me, but I won't sell you my time that cheaply. The constant repeats make us reach for the mute, unwilling to even listen to the annoyance.

The streaming does have a few nice advantages. You get a complete catalog of everything, so you can go to the event you want directly. In some cases, the streams have tags so you can seek to parts of the events. For example, NBC lets you select which end of a curling match. They could do a lot more of this, but I have only seen a little.

NBC is also offering "enhanced" streams where they shrink the main view to about 60% size and put in statistics, live data from judges, a usually useless 2nd camera view and other data. It's good, but in some cases the drop in size of the main view is too much. What would be great would be a way for the user to select, in real time, what they want to see, toggling between a full view and desired text boxes with information. The text boxes are video feeds, but they should be text boxes that I can then either overlay on my video, or put into its own window or even put onto a second screen. Most of the time they are designing these feeds for people's phones and tablets, not for TV set top boxes, or they might think of this two screen approach.

NBC offered the opening ceremony without commentary! Unfortunately, you only got this if you watched it live (which was not at a convenient time) or much later. But that they did it at all is a good step. What I would actually like is to have the commentary as text/subtitles which I can turn on and off. I certainly don't want to listen to them talk over the music and the scenes.

NBC vs CBC

The two main streams I have been watching are NBC and CBC. To watch NBC, even though it is a broadcast channel, they insist you have a cable or satellite subscription. A strange choice. To watch CBC outside of Canada, you need a VPN but no account. Ditto any other trans-national watching -- I may check out the BBC or others.

NBC has horrible forced commercials. Every clip you watch requires you to see one of 2 or 3 Comcast ads, again and again and again, before you start. Then you get a forced commercial break every 10 minutes or so, even if you are seeking around. The forced starting commercials are annoying if you are sampling a bunch of events, because you can't start watching until you see the stupid repeated ad you've seen 30 times already.

CBC does one short commercial at the start of clips and -- this is very nice -- no commercials inside the clip, unless you are watching a segment that was put on public air. You can even choose -- the broadcast stream or a per-event stream.

VPN watching has its downsides unless your VPN is a more expensive one. It can slow down seeking and degrade video quality.

Right now, the old-world norm is to allocate monopolies to different networks for different countries. Comcast paid a ton for the USA monopoly and so the CBC can't even legally sell me access to their coverage. It would be nice if I could just pay the CBC and they had to funnel some of the money back to Comcast if I was in the USA. This would keep everybody happy, and satisfy the very large market of expatriates who like to see coverage from home. NBC usually covers the Olympics as though there really aren't any other countries in the games. I don't blame them too much for this, other countries do that as well, though not quite as badly. But let me pick which country my coverage is in love with.

Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR)

I am a bit disappointed that Russia got away with sending the athletes who weren't on their doping list, allowing them to compete under the name OAR. It did not take long for the press to start referring to them as the Russian team, and while they don't get the Russian anthem or flag, I suspect that the history books will record all their medals as Russian medals, with an asterisk that this was the year the country was punished.

I get that they don't want to punish the athletes for what the national team did, and so they compete. But I think it should be harsher. They should be called something like "Olympic Athletes from Cheating Nation" and if there were more than one cheating nation, they would all be lumped together.

With more time, it might have made sense to give the athletes two choices. They could accept the money and training of the barred Russian Olympic committee and government, but could not win medals. They could still set records and would be reported in the standings. Or they could compete on their own or with privately raised money under the Olympic flag (no "from Russia") and win medals.

Alternately, they could demand the Russian Olympic committee contribute money to all Olympic athletes who will compete against an OAR. This would make their committee cost 20x or more as much to run. The penalty for organized cheating should be severe. If the athletes who were not on the doping list are not to be punished, the committee's punishment should be extreme. And last for more than one games.

Curling is still the best Olympics sport

Once again, Curling is the most enjoyable Olympics sport. It also benefits a lot from watching a local hard disk recording, because you can generate a fairly easy "good parts" version if you don't have the time to watch it all.

  • Curling is the most strategic of Olympics sports. If you like strategy, you want that.
  • Curling is also about skill and aim, but not so much about strength and endurance. This means champion curlers can often be middle-aged, unlike most other sports. For us older folks, that's nice, and I think it's generally good.
  • The new sport, mixed-doubles curling, is a nice addition. I am in favour of most new sports being mixed. Curling, in theory, could become a fully mixed sport. There are very few truly mixed sports in the Olympics. Sharpshooting used to be, but the men dominated it, so they segregated it a few decades ago. Equestrian and some sailing are still mixed, I believe. Luge doubles was technically mixed for a while but it became all-male in practice.
  • Curling is one of the few sports in the winter games where you can see and understand the victory. The vast majority of sports in the winter games are decided by clocks and judges. With curling you can see the tension, understand it and get excited by it.
  • Canada often wins the gold!

Visible winners vs. clocks and judges

As noted, the winter games in particular are rife with events that consist of watching a series of competitors do their best, and then seeing at the end who had the best time or score. They try to improve that by putting the favourites at the end so the last runs are exciting.

Problem is, it's not exciting, especially in the sports where, to the untrained eye, all runs look almost identical. Oh, you can see differences but they are subtle and not exciting for any but the dedicated fan. That's true for most skiing, the sliding sports, and long track speed skating.

Hockey and Curling are the most exciting, direct contests you can easily understand. Snowboarding and freestyle skiing offer runs that differ -- the medalist's tricks are clearly better than the other contenders, but not a great deal. This is also true for figure skating, though it is one of the more popular sports. Even then, they tend to show you only the contenders and athletes from your country.

Two sports also turn out to be exciting, but sadly not for a great reason. Short track speed skating and snowboard cross are exciting races. But they also are often determined not by speed but by not falling down. Again, the spills and wipeouts are very thrilling, but they are not really fair sporting. In some cases it's almost as though they should just give the contestants dice to decide who wins. Often, the best athlete will not finish, which is sad. They are used to it, though. I prefer to see things like Usain Bolt demonstrating his superior speed, and would not like it if the 100m involved half the competitors tripping, with the gold going to the fastest one who doesn't.

Though I won't deny that a biathlon of short track speed skating and shooting would certainly be exciting.

In general, there are many sports today where being the best means trying things that are right at the edge of your capability. As such, half the competitors fail, and half don't. Even if the ones who failed generally have mastered the trick they are trying. Figure skating is like this to a degree.

When it comes to viewing the sports where most runs look the same, I would love the online version to let me request a customized feed, as follows:

  • Show me the medal runs, of course. The gold must not always be last to create some suspense. (Probably keep the same order they use these days.)
  • Show me a couple non-medal runs, to add more uncertainty
  • Show me athletes from my own country or of whom I am a fan, even if they don't medal.
  • In some cases, limit it to the best parts. If somebody was ordinary but did an exceptional element, toss that in but not the whole run.

Making more sports visually competitive

I doubt people would go for it, but you could turn some sports like figure skating, into a real and tense competition, not based on judges and not based on who falls down or not. The answer is found in sports like the High Jump and Pole Vault.

To do such a sport, a challenge would be set, like a lutz figure skating jump. Each skater would attempt the jump and get 2 or 3 attempts. Miss 3 attempts and you are out, and they "raise the bar" until only one athlete can do it. You could do this with all the different elements to get a combined score and an undisputed technical winner. However, the audience is tuning in for "artistic" elements too, so this would probably not satisfy.

The team events are silly

The games now contain utterly pointless team events in Figure Skating and (in the summer) Gymnastics. These events are not team events, rather they make a "team" out of individual skaters in individual events, and adding them up. They are pointless in anything but ratings -- they allow the network to broadcast twice as much of the highest rated sports.

You could of course do a team event by just having each nation designate a "team" out of individual competitors, and then add up the scores of each set of competitors to get the country medals. It was nice for Canada to win this gold, but also unfair, because what it really means is that countries with deep benches get extra medals. If you are the best in the world, but skate for Cuba, you are never getting that medal.

Team events of this sort can be mixed, but they are not really mixed. The real goal of mixed sports is to get athletes of both sexes working together and competing together.

I also note that the team event was effectively fully decided before they skated the last round (ice dance.) In some sports that would mean they shake hands and don't bother to keep going, but of course the whole purpose of the team event is to make airtime. In fact, the "journalists" covering the event on NBC continued to talk as though there was some suspense until the end, other than a brief mention after Italy's obvious elimination from the medals became mathematically certain.

I wish the two Koreas thing were more real

It was moving to see the two countries march together and field a joint Hockey team. (Of course, neither Korea is really a contender in Hockey, so it's a symbolic gesture. No team that was actually a contender would allow the random injection of several unknown players onto their roster.)

I've visited Korea several times, including a week there in November. The division is one of the world's great tragedies. A whole nation enslaved and kept poor to keep one family and its cronies in the good life. It's the most selfish act of modern times. Every subway station has stacks of emergency supplies and gas masks at the ready because the DPRK has tons of artillery along the border ready to turn the major cities into rubble.

I wonder what stories the athletes and cheerleaders will tell on their return. They make them sleep on the boat that brought them, and watch them all the time. But they can't help but notice the city they ride the bus through, the glamour and technology of the opening ceremonies. I wish there were an answer.

Comments

One technical thing I love is when they somehow superimpose two different runs of downhill skiing or luge where you can see exactly where one competitor stands against another. It’s a marvelous feat of motion tracking and I wish they’d do that more.

One thing I wish they’d do is to have a camera following bobsled and luge down the track. That would be an amazing video-game-like viewpoint. Put a camera on rails that follows the sled.

It works well with the ski runs, and they also sometimes paint the leader line on the long oval speed skating and other elements.

It is good, but in the end, it's pretty hard to make downhill or race-the-clock events that exciting for me. Almost all runs are the same, at least to the non-expert eye. What you can see is mostly when people screw up, and I watch the Olympics to see the best of what humans can do. Sure, spills are exciting but they are not the goal.

Now, I am being contradictory here. I want the Olympics dedicated to excellence but I also want them to be exciting to watch. These sometimes conflict. Short track and snowboard cross would measure the capabilities of each athlete better with time trials, but be boring. (Of course, you could not do time trials since skill at passing is a big part of these sports, as it is in many race sports.)

With Ski Jump, you could imagine them creating a virtual ten-lane jump hill, and making it look like 10 jumped at once. You could also do something like that for long speed skate (though the drafting here plays a role) and timed cross-country. But then it has much less commercial time.

The judged sports are different, but not as different as I would like. While I can see the difference between the different competitors on half-pipe or slopestyle there is still a lot of similarity to their efforts, especially for the non-expert. So I would prefer the abridged "good parts" version, but the way commercial TV works, they are not incented to do that.

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