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Posted at 09:41 AM ET, 07/30/2012

Olympics 2012: From birds to broadband

This piece originally appeared on the WaPo Labs Blog.WaPo Labs is the digital team at the Washington Post Company focused on innovation and experimenting with emerging technologies.

Much has been written in recent weeks about the unprecedented digital reach of this year’s Olympic Games. From stats on gadgets (eight billion devices will be connected! 1,800 special WiFi stations created!) to our own post on “The First Social Media Olympics,” journalists and techies alike have trumpeted the technological advancements and social media networking that will make the London Games more accessible than any that have come before.

But it wasn’t always so simple. Before live streaming, before mobile apps and Twitter, in the centuries upon centuries Before the Internet (B.I.), the Olympic Games have existed, dating back to 776 BC. But how did the non-Olympia-dwelling plebes find out who had won the coveted wreaths of laurel leaves without YouTube replays or Facebook updates?

It all began with pigeons.


Frmo pigeons to tweets, communicating the results of the Olympic Games has evolved substantially since 776 B.C. (JACQUELINE DORMER - AP)
Network solutions company AcmePacket collected a bunch of interesting Olympic communication stats from around the Web and created an infographic called “London Calling: Mobility & the Olympic Games.” The graphic traces the evolution of how competition results were transmitted to sports fans far and wide. Beginning with the 776 B.C .games, and lasting until 384 A.D., when Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympics in a bid to enforce Christianity as a state religion, homing pigeons were the primary form of disseminating information.

As centuries of Olympic radio silence passed, pigeons gave way to more technologically advanced methods, and by 1896, when the competition was revived by the newly formed International Olympic Committee, telegraphs replaced fowl as the messengers of choice.

In 1924, the Olympics were broadcast over the radio for the first time, and in 1936, a live telecast was shown to viewers in Berlin and Potsdam, Germany. By 1960, the Games were being broadcast on television worldwide; 36 years later, in 1996, Atlanta hosted the first “Internet Olympics,” marked by the competition’s very own Web page. Today, a mere 16 years later, we have the 24/7 Olympic Athletes Hub, dozens of smartphone apps that track everything from the progress of the Olympic torch to the location of toilets in the host city, and the London Eye alight with a rainbow of colors that correspond to Twitter sentiment about the Games.

And in 2016, when the next Summer Olympics are held in Rio, the digital reach of the Games will have evolved even further – by that time, there will be more mobile devices on the planet than humans.

We’ve come a long way from the days when a deciphering a code of dots and dashes was the only way to learn which athlete took home the gold medal, and a different kind of bird has replaced the pigeon messengers of ancient Greece. But, despite massive advances in technology and social media, most viewers still want to know just one simple fact: who won?

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By Hannah Rubenstein  |  09:41 AM ET, 07/30/2012

Categories:  Morning Read, Technology, #Quirky

 
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