The Best BBC Olympic Trails – Faster, Finer, Longer

The 2016 Olympics are upon us. Before I get stuck in to watching Danny Boyle and co’s stunning and sublime 2012 Opening Ceremony for the nth time, back-to-back with Fernando Meirelles Rio opener, time to pay tribute to the BBC’s great contribution to the Olympic tradition…

This century’s seen BBC marketing pull it out the sand bag pretty much every Olympics. Maybe it’s an attempt to pacify the millions of British viewers who, having just recovered from tennis and football championships, now have to contend with a further three weeks of disrupted viewing with barely a repeat of New Tricks to cling to. Even Poldark‘s in hiding until autumn this year.

Or maybe it’s just because they hit on the perfect, simple formula and the right partners to make it work.

Channelling fire for the summer and ice for the winter, the Olympic idents that the BBC wheel out every couple of years are worth celebration as much as anticipation. It’s seldom they fall short of a gold, mainly because they barely wander from ideas at the core of the Olympic ideal. And in translating that to each diverse host country, they sure do it well.

Here are my favourites, starting with the current trip to South America.

Rio de Janeiro 2016

Agency: RKCR/Y&R

Music: Not Gonna Break Me, Jamie N Commons

It’s difficult to follow 2012, but in the year that brought The Jungle Book back to the big screen, BBC have dug out style, comedy, wonder and some cuddly predators for the road to Rio. It could be the end of an era. Producers Redbee Media have reached the end of their exclusive 10 year contract producing BBC promos, making way for internal agency BBC Creative in Salford.

What a way to go.

The ad’s metaphor is drawn out in the radio trails: “In the forests of Rio de Janeiro, it pays to be fierce and fast.” Having counted down to the Games before bracketing the Corporation’s coverage, this colourful masterpiece takes the BBC’s usual Olympic trope one step further: translating, liberally, the skills of the natural inhabitants of Brazil’s great rain forests to the challenge of Olympian sport.

Seizing the baton from recent recent summer Olympics, the theme of the protean is more noticeable than ever in the jungle. These trails highlight either the superhuman achievements certain humans bring to the greatest sporting event on Earth or the innate abilities that the Olympic arena can unlock in anyone. And after years of mythical and nationalistic twisting of that idea, this is the most atavistic yet.

It pulls out the idea of change that shone in the Athens and Beijing trails and marries it to the stylised animation that brought us London 2012. In that series, the element of change fell on the islands of Britain itself, with competitors taking time to admire the stadium country. In Brazil the astonishing scenery provides a dramatic backdrop, but the awe of the competitors is saved for the distinctive multi-layered  and gleaming sprawl of Rio at the close. There’s always a journey.

There’s even time for the wonderful staginess of a final Cat People riff – the panther emerging from the jungle morphs off camera, the primed athlete then walking towards the Cityscape.

Manimal. They don’t test for that.

Beijing 2008

Agency: RKCR

Music: Damon Albarn

The Rio trail follows in the strong footsteps of its predecessors, particular of fauna. Eight years ago, it was a neat campaign that slotted the journey to the Olympic ideal into folklore; fitting as many Olympic sports as possible into a cultural trope. In 2008, much of that work was ready to pick up from Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s stagey Gorillaz spin-off Journey to the West. Shame they hadn’t abducted Hewlett’s Tank Girl to front the Sydney branding in 2000.

The artist and musician had to fend off their uneasy association with the host country, but as Hewett put it, “If you start to boycott China… America has to be next”. Olympics are necessarily politics-free, as much as its plagued them for the last century. The same is true of the BBC in general. 2008 brought another beautiful creation, but by abducting Hewlett’s style and the characters themselves from the adaptation Journey to the East it stands out the most slavishly convenient.

Athens 2004

Agency: I just dunno, do you?

Music: Hate to say I told you so, Hives

This remains my absolute favourite, almost every frame stuck in my mind since summer 2004. This is where the modern age of BBC Olympic idents began. It’s a wonderful interpretation of Clash of the Titans for the Games homecoming. Drawing on facets of Greek mythology, from Perseus to the original marathon, it presents the athlete who can conquer all. An athlete who’s defiantly not a god, but an Olympian mortal.

Much of the groundwork was laid by Zeus himself of course, many myths following mere mortals or demi-gods contending with vast cosmic forces and the sudden interruption of the fantastic. While Olympics may give a bit more warning, that’s a fine thing to be boiled down for the games, and even better when those astonishing feats are staged against a domestic argument on Mount Olympus. Matched to Hives bombast, as much as the later move to animation produced some stylistic masterpieces, the Athens mix just worked.

When the Games arrived, the spin-off film that introduced each show was called The Runner, it was Wolfgang Petersen‘s Troy to the trailer’s spin on Desmond Davis’ original Clash of the Titans. All endurance, no gods.

Sochi 2014

Agency: RKCR/Y&R

Music: Alexis Troy and TRO Music Services

It’s getting colder. And the chill air brought a simple take for the last Winter Olympics, man vs nature. An Everest awaits… Sterling narration by Charles Dance reaffirmed that we were in the age of Game of Thrones, but the result isn’t one for the memory.

See the videos that channel profound adjectives through heavy English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish accents in Six Nations or Wimbledon VTs. Despite the subject matter, they’re better matched to a single clash than a legacy.

Accusations that this trail favoured fantasy over an emotional connection weren’t far off. But it was an Olympics where broadcasters expected the unexpected. And there’s all manner of metaphor to be mined in the Games return to Russia should you wish to look for it. The music was specially commissioned, and rises above its reduced role in the trail. Here’s the full confrontational version.

The rest can be left to Charles Dance.

But now you stand before me. Devoid of all dismay. Could it be? Just maybe. I’ll let you have your day.”

Uncompromising for that trip to Russia then. But a bit over the top for free-style skiing.

London 2012

Agency: RKCR/Y&R

Music: First Steps, Elbow

Probably stands the test as Red Bee’s greatest production for the BBC. Following previous Games, which had seen the BBC slotting modern Olympian sports into the folklore of Greece and China, the homecoming games brought the longest trail and a need to represent the whole of the country. The answer was the beautiful Stadium Britain, doing exactly what it says on the tin and white cliffs.

Like Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, it was entirely inclusive in its national focus. What so impressive is that it manages to capture a timelessness in its trips from dales to Channel to terraces. Elbow, asked to produce the BBC’s fanfare, seemed an ideal fit. And they were. RKCR/Y&R also produced a Olympic trail for Lloyds Bank that same year, which the cynical drew comparison to. But they were well off. Given the thin but defined band these trails fall into, Rio’s update has only confirmed that.

Apparently, oddly, there were few laurels to rest on that year. Auntie’s separate trail for the Olympic Torch Relay was distinct but pretty pixel perfect in its wonder. Unlike Sochi two years on, this was an Olympics where nothing could be over the top.

Sydney 2000

Music: Olympic Fanfare, John Williams

Worth an inclusion for its simplicity. Sydney was the last title sequence before the BBC took a visual hammer to their Olympics coverage. Slotting highlights onto the face and shape of the state capital of New South Wales it was undeniably a sports introduction. What marks it out is the and the use of John Williams Olympic Fanfare, used every Games by America’s NBC network since it’s composition for Los Angeles 1984. There’s a nice example in here of how something a little bit extra’s needed to draw out the wonder of the Olympics.

A better quality but smaller version was recently posted on the BBC website.

Vancouver 2010

Agency: RKCR/Y&R

Music: Cry me a River, Michael Bublé

Beautiful and scary.

At the time, animator Marc Craste was well known for his Lloyds TSB ads (yes, them again), but bringing him in for the Vancouver Games gives the best demonstration of an ident becoming synonymous with its source Games. Jon Klassen of Coraline fame added his weight of skill to the backgrounds and the stark, black-and-white, makes an interesting companion piece to the sun drenched Athens trails of six years before.

Louisa Fyans, head of marketing and communications at the BBC said at the time, “Following the success of the Beijing Olympics monkey campaign our aim was to once again reach a younger audience while reflecting the national heritage of the host country.” That the Mad World style travails of an Inuit hunt turns out to be so bloody creepy is a credit to that intention.

The backing was Canadian, but with a twist. The reworked big band introduction to Michael Bublé’s version of Cry Me a River, another choice that just works. The finest Winter Games effort so far.

After the Olympics…

There’s life after the Olympics. Yes, I know it doesn’t feel like it right now. But who’d have thought that at the close of a triumphant London Games, with a buzzing Britain and pleased as punch BBC (and relieved no doubt, I was at some early Olympic broadcast meetings for the Corporation so I can imagine…), the Corporation would have pulled out this confident and rather audacious plug for a new drama series set in the East End, a stone’s throw from the Games, and backed by what I like to think of as Kanye’s Fraggle Rock. Well played BBC, well played…



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