From slow-motion to live TV: ’68 Olympics impacted how we watch today

Mexico City was the first Olympics to be broadcast live and in color.

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the seminal moment of the Mexico City Games, when Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a black-gloved fist from the medals podium, GlobalSport Matters looks back at the year from a global sporting perspective. From the World Series helping a wounded Detroit heal to athletic innovations that trace their origins to those Olympics, 1968 served as a critical pivot point in the role sports plays in society and introduced the modern era of athlete activism. To see all of our stories, please click here.

Sports has always been a platform for innovation in television, but the 1968 Mexico City Summer Games pushed production even further.

Through October, GlobalSport Matters examines how events from 1968 resonate today.

Imagine watching a game today that wasn’t live, that wasn’t in color and that did not feature slow-motion replay. Sports fans can thank the 1968 Olympic Games for those advances.

In the years leading up to those Summer Games, the three leading American broadcast networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, were at the forefront of transitioning from radio to TV.

By 1960 the U.S. was the leading country with number of sets in use, according to a report on radio and television from 1950-1960 in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Between 1960 and 1965, the average number of daily viewing hours went up to 23 minutes per TV household, the biggest jump in any five-year period since 1950,” according to Britannica.com.

Part of that steady increase was due to sports drawing viewers.

“The attraction of sports to the networks in their early period was not advertising dollars,” according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication. “Instead, broadcasters were looking to air sports as a means of boosting demand for television as a medium.”

“By the mid-1960s, however, televised sports had become so expensive that individual advertisers found it increasingly difficult to pay for sponsorship of major events by themselves,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications added. “Still, the number of hours of sports on network television exploded as the audience grew and the multiplying ranks of spot-buying advertisers coveted these valuable minutes.”

While the amount of televised sports in America had steadily increased from the 1930s to 1960s, the attention in that last decade shifted to the Olympic Games. All three major broadcasting networks pursued the broadcast rights.

“Back in 1960, CBS was the first American network to pay for the broadcast rights to the (Summer) Olympics, paying only $394,000 at the time,” according to NewscastStudio.  

However, four years later ABC earned the bidding rights to televise the winter and summer games in 1964 and 1968.

Travis Vogan’s book “ABC Sports: The Rise and Fall of Network Sports Television”, offers “a cultural and institutional history of ABC Sports Television from its beginnings to its 2006 re-branding.”

To televise its first Olympic Games “ABC paid $7 million total for rights to the 1968 Winter and Summer Olympics: $2.5 million for Grenoble (France) and $4.5 million for Mexico City,” Vogan wrote.

However, securing the rights to broadcast the Mexico City Games didn’t come easily.

“ABC called Mexico City the ‘most extensive and complicated coverage of any event in TV history." - Author Travis Vogan

“Desperate to maintain a foothold in sports broadcasting, NBC reportedly told the Mexico City OOC (Olympic Organization Committee) that it would top any bid ABC issued,” Vogan said.

Although the committee eventually sided with ABC’s experience, Roone Arledge, then president of ABC Sports, was quoted in Vogan’s book saying, “After watching us covering past Olympics, they just assumed we could do it best.”

Arledge, along with Robert Trachinger, an ABC Sports executive, is credited with creating the “first hand-held TV camera and slow-motion videotape system that allowed television viewers to watch replays of exciting sports plays,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

“The replay feature forever changed sports broadcasting when it was introduced in the early 1960s,” according to the San Diego Union Tribune.

“Trachinger’s experimental work resulted in the first successful black-and-white slow-motion videotape,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. “He also was responsible for the development of the first broadcast-quality hand-held cameras, which served as the forerunners of the electronic news-gathering cameras of today. And the underwater electronic camera was developed in his home swimming pool.”

ABC used 250 staff on site, aired 72 hours of coverage with eight in prime time and broadcasted every event, except bobsled, in color at the Grenoble Games.

Arledge called the games “the most extensive single color undertaking in the history of broadcasting.”

“ABC also utilized its nearly exhaustive camera positions to offer start-to-finish coverage of downhill skiing and used split-screen technology to compare skiers’ performance to their competitors’ earlier runs,” Vogan said.

The Chicago Tribune was quoted in Vogan’s book saying, “ABC-TV itself has struck gold with its excellent coverage of the winter games.”

When ABC transitioned to the Mexico City Games that same year, their broadcasting improved.

With only a 1-hour time difference and NASA’s launch of Intelsat 3 telecommunications satellite weeks before, ABC increased the amount of its live coverage and ensure global coverage from Mexico City.

“Utilizing cameras in helicopters and on a 225-foot crane above the central stadium, and a microphone inside the Olympic flame to capture the whooshing sound of it being lit,” Vogan said.

Although ABC only carried 44 total hours of coverage they had 10 in prime time.

Tom Schools Information Sheet, ‘Broadcasting the Olympic Games’ states, “Color cameras, at first bulky and heavy, were refined and used outside the studio for the first time at the 1968 Olympic Games.”

“ABC called Mexico City the ‘most extensive and complicated coverage of any event in TV history,’” Vogan wrote.

The technological advances ABC made in its Olympic coverage was overshadowed by the political climate in Mexico City.

“Mexico City became the site of varied protests that resonated with the U.S. athletes’ grievances,” Vogan wrote. “Though embroiled in civil turmoil, Mexico City was still attempting to solidify its status as part of the modern world and urgently wanted to appear unified and prosperous for the global audience the Olympics would attract.”

As a result, “ABC reduced its live coverage because of anxieties regarding how its audience and sponsors might respond to any protests it aired,” Vogan said.

“My personal opinion is there’s going to be trouble, what kind I don’t know,” Arledge said in the weeks leading up to the games. “We’re going to be prepared, of course, as well as possible.”

Days before the most notable event, ABC’s Wide World of Sports host, Jim McKay “joined in probing the story line by asking Tommie Smith about the potential boycott — a question the runner skillfully dodged.”   

When John Carlos and Smith’s raised their fists during the national anthem, ABC’s cameras almost missed it.  

“ABC Sports hustled to edit together a short segment on the incident for ABC News to air that evening,” Vogan said. “The news division, however, was uninterested.”

“Arledge claimed ABC News was ‘screaming and yelling’ for more coverage of the demonstration the following day.”

After Smith’s and Carlos’ expulsion from the Olympic Village, they nearly disappeared from all media until ABC’s reporter Howard Cosell found Smith at the Diplomat Hotel.

Cosell then persuaded Smith that he needed to make his perspective known.

“The journalist’s on-air work with and publicly expressed sympathy for (Muhammad) Ali eased Smith’s trepidation and compelled him to join Cosell for a one-on-one conversation at ABC’s Mexico City studio,” Vogan said.

During the interview Smith said, “The black glove on my right hand signified the power within black America, Carlos’ left glove he wore on his hand made an arc to signify black unity, the scarf signaled blackness and the black socks referenced poverty.”

When Cosell asked him if his actions “represent all black athletes” Smith said they “represented black people all over the world.”

Most of the innovations that we see today like live and color television, slow motion and split screen wouldn’t have come along when they did without Arledge and Trachinger.

Elizabeth Jensen, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, wrote on Arledge’s death in 2002: “He introduced the instant replay and slow motion, and made viewers care about the athletes for their personal dramas, not just their statistics.”

Edith Noriega is a junior journalism student at Arizona State University

Related Articles

Opinion: Events of 1968 brought purpose of disruptive protest into focus

Impact of Ed Temple, Tigerbelles pushed Wyomia Tyus to stand up for her beliefs

Olympic legend Wyomia Tyus returns to Mexico City track

Olympic Project for Human Rights lit for 1968 protests

‘Memorable’ 1968 Olympic logo used lines as power

Global student protests put 1968 Mexico City Games on edge

A year to remember: 1968 was momentous for civil, social rights and athlete activism