Olympic efforts at CBC.ca

By Andrew Lundy

The history of CBC.ca’s efforts to cover the Olympics should put to rest forever the debate between intelligent design and evolution. Darwin's the man.

It all began in the primordial soup of 1998, a smelly goop that brought together the primitive creature known as CBC.ca and the then-benign and curious Sympatico. Run mostly by CBC out of its caves on the 2nd floor of the Toronto Broadcasting Centre, the Nagano Winter Games site was driven by, pretty much, two people: Paul Kelly and Chris Wodskou.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997

They toiled in the dark, grunting and drawing primitive designs on the dank stone walls, and produced a site that nobody – not even themselves – can recall much about. The only artifact left for modern online archaeologists was a single slip of fax paper showing a putative total of 11 million page views for the duration of the Games.

In the ensuing two years until the summer games, the only strand of DNA left linking the 1998 site with the yet-to-be-developed 2000 Sydney site was the CBC-Sympatico co-operation. Except that, in the interim, the Sympatico organism had mutated into a horrifying colossus bent on devouring previous partners. So after some initial how-do-you-do meetings between the fledgling CBC Sports Online and TSN.ca (now part of that Sympatico monster) CBC pulled the plug and we were on our own.

And that's when things went haywire.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
From CBC's 2000 Syndey Olympics website

CBC's Sydney 2000 site was cursed from that meeting on. Cursed, you say? That's how our primitive minds phrased it in those days. Between April and September 2000, here's a quick rundown of all the mishaps endured by the folks who eventually brought you Sydney 2000:

  • Our chief graphic artist left in August (six weeks before the Games began) for a better job: a sign of the dot-com bubble madness.
  • One of her replacements was a guy whose graphics skills were limited to downloading free clip art from questionable sites.
  • Our executive producer left shortly after our graphics designer to take a job at Canada.com: more dot-com bubble madness.
  • Around the same time, our chief web architect would quit just before the Games began, and was never replaced.
  • Our writing crew was pretty inexperienced, and some weren’t too sports-savvy. One had never heard of Pete Rose. OK, OK, that's baseball, but I'm sure Charlie Hustle bet on the Olympics.

The madness didn't ease up once the Games started in mid-September, either, making for unbearably long days. I remember working once 28 hours straight. Here's why:

  • Marketing and Sales was still selling ads when the Games started, forcing our writing crew (well, me) to re-code dozens of pages at a time. Everything was being coded manually, by the way, and a living nightmare to update.
  • One of our writers quit partway through the Games, leaving us a person short with no hope of backup.
  • We had no Ops support outside of 9-5 hours. For that matter, there really wasn't an Ops.
  • CBC violated the International Olympic Committee's policy of not airing live Olympic content, audio or video. Everyone forgot that the hourly radio updates that we streamed on the web contained coverage for which we had no internet rights. Well, they forgot until the Wall Street Journal ran an in-your-face story about how CBC was kicking NBC's online ass. We had live content, they didn't. It just made NBC honcho Dick Ebersol mad enough to pressure the IOC to revoke CBC's site privileges in Sydney if we didn't stop the streaming. So, with NBC's boot firmly planted in our rear, we did.
  • Our new boss had a, er, detached involvement with the Olympics. When it became apparent we were falling short of our traffic target, he made a suggestion: put a red border around the Olympic promo tile on the main page. "Perhaps we could make it flash on and off, Alan." "That's Andrew."

The final numbers came in around 5.5 million page views, roughly half our target. It was an unqualified disaster, save for some solid relationship building between online and TV, which we pushed to the limit two years later.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC's 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics website

Working on the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 was like emerging from the Jurassic Era to the Stone Age. It was an Olympics of firsts: the first real budget (thanks to the efforts of CBC.ca's Bob Kerr and David Masse from TV Sports), the first formalized support from our Operations department, the first time we went with an outside design firm (Art & Soul), and the first time we'd work closely with our cousins at the online sports department of Radio-Canada.ca in Montreal.

It was also a first for some of the more enduring Olympic features: Hometown Heroes (which offered users a forum to send messages to Canada’s athletes and start discussions about their performances) made its debut in 2002, as did the 3 Stars poll (where we asked viewers to choose the three stars of each Canadian Olympic hockey game) and Flash interactive sports explainers powered by the Agence-France Presse news agency.

Some of those firsts inevitably led to gaffes and problems. We had issues with the statistics provided by Agence France Press: English Canadians woke up to find that Theo Fleury's tripping transgression earned him time in 'prison' rather than the penalty box (although considering Theo's future, maybe that was just prescient). Derek Marshall in our Ops department is still recovering from the stress our 3 Stars poll placed on his team, although it worked in the end and delivered more than 44,000 votes for the final men's gold-medal hockey game.

The numbers were solid all around: more than 15 million page views, substantial online ad revenue, and the most comprehensive and well-written suite of stories and features in Canada. That was largely due to our team: a carefully-selected group of writers with a broad mix of experience and solid talent, a dedicated technical producer in the form of Paul Kelly, who returned to CBC just for the Olympics, and Chris Wodskou as our senior editor.

Salt Lake City was a major step in our evolution; in the span of two years we'd sprouted opposable thumbs and learned to stop living in our own filth.

And speaking of living in our own filth, on to the Athens 2004 site …

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
From CBC's 2004 Athens Olympics website

Did you know that most of the scenes from the 2005 horror-torture flick Hostel were filmed in the online production space CBC had given us for the Athens 2004 website? This space on the 1st floor near the plum elevators was more a chamber than a room, and earned the nickname The Crypt by the online Olympic writers.

Bureaucratic delays – hey, a first for CBC! – forced the writers to start late, much later than we wanted them too. We made up for that by cramming them into Diefenbaker-era desks, using Mulroney-era computers, in a room that served both as a foyer for radio auditions and a thoroughfare for the homeless.

Chris Wodskou was once again at the helm editorially, while Casey Trauer (another former CBCer we'd coaxed back for an Olympic run) became creative producer and was the major liaison between editorial and the folks on the 2nd floor. That was especially important, considering CBC brass had decided to use our in-house staff to design and build the site.

Athens went even more smoothly than Salt Lake City, with few technical or journalistic glitches. Despite Canada's sucky performance (three gold, six silver, three bronze) – sure, Perdita Felicien's fall in the hurdles was terrific for numbers, but how far can that take you? – the section topped our Salt Lake City numbers, coming in at around 15.1 million page views. And once again we'd made our sales targets, so every penny the Athens site cost CBC was paid for by ad revenue.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC's 2006 Torino Olympics website

Between Athens and Torino, it was like Darwin on steroids. Imagine learning how to walk upright, taming fire and getting your pilot's licence all in the space of a few months. That's how much more a success Torino was, compared to Athens.

And that was despite many things: the eight-week CBC lockout a few months earlier, the loss of our creative producer during that lockout, a changing of the guard at senior editor (Chris Wodskou out, Chris Harris in), the poor performance of Canada's men's hockey team – always a huge traffic generator – and rolling the dice on a new and relatively untried outside design firm, Indusblue.

But what we did right in Sydney, Salt Lake City and Athens, we repeated. What we did wrong, we changed. And we did a lot of news things well. With tremendous results.

The numbers speak for themselves: more than 70 million page views, the most visits in a single day in CBC.ca history, considerable ad revenue, successful new ventures like live game commentary and video on cellphones, and the first bilingual 3 Stars poll. Our design was top-notch and user feedback was the best yet.

Very big shoes to fill for Beijing in 2008, CBC's last Olympics for at least six years. Can we fill them?

Like most good evolutionary biologists, predicting the future is a mug’s game. Let’s just say that as long as our DNA stays intact and the right nutrients are in the Petri dish, we should go out with a bang.

Just let me get some sleep first.

Andrew Lundy joined CBC in 1998 as a web producer for CBC-TV's Marketplace, and later created CBC.ca's Consumer zone. He moved to Sports Online in 2000 as its senior producer. Prior to coming to CBC, Andrew was an award-winning newspaper reporter for the St. Catharines Standard and the Financial Post. He studied graduate journalism at the University of Western Ontario, where he received his political science degree, and has also studied graduate international affairs at Carleton University.