RTE's Olympian effort


`And that was Sonia O'Sullivan, winner of the silver medal in the 5,000-metres at the 2000 Olympics, live from Sydney."

Bill O'Herlihy, presenter of RTE's evening coverage of the Olympics and veteran sports presenter, is beaming. The live interview went great. The time difference between Ireland and Sydney meant that it was the morning after the big event in Sydney but late night back home, and a time delay of nearly two seconds on the line made for what looked like long pauses during the conversation. But Sonia was still walking on air after her superb performance on the track.

Sitting in Sydney on Tuesday morning, Sonia had little idea how much her performance had lifted the spirits of a nation. There had been nail-chewing moments in studio, too, when all that could be heard was "Can she do it? she looks like she's struggling."

It was all the more important because Irish participation in the games were, until that last amazing lap, something of a washout. By last Friday morning, and Sonia's first qualifying heat, exhaustion had taken the sparkle off the enthusiasm of the staff at RTE, who were broadcasting an average of 17 hours' live coverage daily. Long hours were taking a toll, but Sonia's win in her heat that day, and the great hope of an Irish medal, was the motivation needed to jump-start the flagging spirits at Montrose.

RTE is working around the clock bringing audiences a total of 270 hours of coverage from Sydney, highlighting the best of the 297 events throughout the 18-day period and focusing on the best of Irish performances. Right now track and field, which is the most popular group of events with audiences all around the world, is going strong. With five main programmes, from the late evening Talking Sydney right through All Night Sydney to the early morning updates on Good Morning Sydney, RTE's coverage of the Olympics has taken one year of planning, and on the first day of the games the staff still did not know what to expect. "It was a bumpy ride but we got through it and we're still going," says one.

At 7 a.m., Michael Lyster's smiling face greets the nation as we wake up to another day of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. It's a busy programme, catching up on all the news and events that took place in Sydney while most of us were sleeping. It's 5 p.m. down under, and just as RTE's coverage of the games is starting, events are winding down in Sydney for tea-time.

RTE's Olympic coverage is a mixture of live and taped events. It requires a great deal of thinking on feet and ad-libbing from presenters and guests. Michael Lyster is sitting at the Olympic set in studio, and alongside him sits news presenter Flor MacCarthy. Eamonn Coughlan, Sean Kelly, Gary O'Toole, Sam Lynch, TJ Kearns, Mick Dowling and Michael Corcoran come and go as guests for the various events. They are the calm faces that viewers see, but behind and above them there is a great hive of activity.

It's a big operation. RTE receive six main live picture feeds from Sydney, and the broadcaster also has its own camera crew there to cover events where the Irish colours are competing. There are 38 staff in Sydney liaising with the team back at base. Reporters Ryle Nugent, Tony O'Donoghue and Claire McNamara are running all over Sydney covering news as it happens. On Monday morning at Sonia's final, Ryle Nugent was waiting trackside with a camera crew and a live feed back to Dublin, hoping that Sonia would finish well and hoping to grab a few minutes with a very emotional Sonia O'Sullivan as the live audience back home waited and watched.

Commentators George Hamilton, Jimmy Magee, Jim Sherwin and others are ringside at the various events providing live commentary for the Irish viewers. Back in Donnybrook, the presenters and studio guests invited along to provide analysis are seeing events as they happen. At the same time, the Dublin team is also providing direction and information for the Sydney team on a constant basis through a "talkback" system - like a more sophisticated version of ham radio.

The control room is the nerve centre of the whole operation. It's here the programme director and producer sit, controlling and co-ordinating all input to and output from the show. There is a wall of screens in front of the control room staff, 26 in total, including the six live feeds coming in from Sydney. It's a minute by minute process.

Down on the studio floor Michael and Flor read scripts from the autocue machine, chatting away at stages, always connected to the control room through their ear-pieces. The make-up artist runs on set during commercial breaks and dabs faces shining under the powerful lights. Runners bring tea, coffee and biscuits. The editorial team has been working on the round-up of content since 10 p.m last night, and then for the live segments of the show it's "Stand by Sydney we are handing over to you . . ."

RTE has no control over what events are coming in on the six picture feeds into Ireland. The European Broadcasting Union, of which RTE is a member, negotiated in advance with member countries and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) about what events will be broadcast. Months of planning at the sports department and trawling through the schedule checking what athletes are competing in what events have given the programme makers and presenters some idea of the timetable, but when it's live sport it's often very much a matter of winging it.

Sports staff monitor and tape the big events all night, putting together a package of the main highlights to present to viewers; this is where the big editorial decisions come into play. The time difference is causing logistical headaches for the RTE Olympic team. Daytime in Dublin is night-time in Sydney, and there's not enough staff there to man the on-site office for 24 hours. RTE's away team is small compared to other international operations. The BBC have around 360 staff based over there, and the US network NBC has several times that number. RTE has only one camera crew compared to NBC's 150, but NBC's production costs alone run in excess of $125 million.

When the daytime Dublin staff arrive in work, their counterparts in Sydney are heading off to bed. So Dublin works in the dark for most of the day preparing for the evening shows, and Sydney only joins in just before the Today in Sydney show goes on air from 7 p.m. Some days they only catch each other with minutes to spare.

Take the women's marathon last Saturday night/Sunday morning; one minute before the start Dublin was still unsure if it could secure a connection to Sydney: the pictures were feeding in all right, but the crew couldn't establish a voice connection. And then with seconds to spare the voice of commentator Tony O'Donoghue broke through loud and clear. Minutes later he was joined by athlete Catherina McKiernan, who would have been running herself if an injury hadn't dashed her hopes.

The Dublin staff for the morning shows are working through the night. It's exhausting but quite a number of them are veteran Olympic producers. The only complaint night staff appear to voice is that they get to eat nothing but breakfast at the staff canteen. They arrive in at 10 p.m and leave at around 10 a.m. the next day, so it's just Irish breakfast - breakfast for lunch, breakfast for dinner and breakfast for breakfast.

This is editor Mike Horgan's 10th Olympics, and he still recalls his first days working on the Tokyo games. Executive producer John D O'Brien and overall editor Caroline Murphy are also Olympic veterans, along with the crew in Australia: head of sport Tim O'Connor and senior producer Maurice Reidy, along with the commentators, are well used to the Olympics. Apart from the old hands and experts, a lot of the team working on the Olympics are young and female.

Runners keep the Olympic office in RTE functioning. Running errands, researching and keeping the food and coffee flowing are the main jobs throughout the day and night. Most of the runners are young, either still in secondary school or starting in college, and get a great kick from the buzzing atmosphere of live television.

Of course things don't always run smoothly. "What the hell? Oh God, we're in trouble!" came the cry from the control room late Saturday night as one mix-up flared up and then passed. There's nowhere to hide on live television.