Pirating the Olympics, Then and Now

Back in 2004, I wrote about how high-quality videos from the Olympics in Athens were being digitized and posted online, in defiance of the networks and the IOC’s rules.

At the time, NBC’s online coverage was restrictive by today’s standards — mostly highlight clips and no live video, delayed until after the events aired on TV, and required a valid credit card to verify residency in the United States.

But that was four years ago! YouTube hadn’t launched yet, HD-quality streaming video on Vimeo was three years away, and BitTorrent or HDTV were only popular with early adopters.

This year, it’s much improved, albeit with some caveats. NBC’s official video is great quality, if you and your computer can stomach Silverlight (unavailable on non-Intel Macs). Their coverage is fantastic, though still tape-delayed. And, because of IOC regulations forbidding international distribution, NBC won’t allow you to download, embed, or transcode any videos for your iPod or phone.

Is this availability enough to satiate the pirates, and what does the quality look like compared to 2004? I went poking through Usenet and some public and private BitTorrent trackers to see.


Back in 2004, the place to go for illegal Olympic videos wasn’t BitTorrent, popular trackers like Suprnova, or mainstream P2P clients. The best coverage, surprisingly, was found in the old-school Usenet binaries. It was a mish-mash of events, skewed heavily towards events with bikini-clad women, Brazilians, or bikini-clad Brazilian women, but other popular events and the opening ceremonies also showed up.

Today, the event coverage in Usenet is just as sporadic, but the quality is dramatically better. Compare the three videos below. The first is a sample from the gymnastics high bar finals from the 2004 games, followed by the same footage of Michael Phelps’ win from Saturday’s 400m IM final, as seen on NBCOlympics.com and a 720p HDTV rip found in Usenet.

Size Comparison (See Actual Size)

Sample Videos (right-click to download):

Here’s the full list of Olympics videos currently up on Usenet, as of this evening:

Olympic Games Opening Ceremony (720p)

Football – Group A – Ivory Coast vs. Argentina Extended Highlights

Football – Group B – Netherlands vs. Nigeria Extended Highlights

Football – Round 1 Highlights

Gymnastics – Men’s Qualifying – USA

Shooting – Women’s 10m Air Pistol Final

Swimming – Men’s 100m Backstroke Semifinals

Swimming – Men’s 100m Breaststroke Final

Swimming – Men’s 200m Freestyle Semifinals

Swimming – Men’s 400m Individual Medley (720p)

Swimming – Men’s 4x100m Freestyle Final

Swimming – Women’s 100m Backstroke Semifinals

Swimming – Women’s 100m Breaststroke Semifinals

Swimming – Women’s 100m Butterfly Final

Swimming – Women’s 400m Freestyle Final

Volleyball – Women’s Preliminaries – China vs. Switzerland

Most of these are in alt.binaries.tv, but some are also posted to alt.binaries.multimedia.sports. I’ll update this list at the end of next week.


But the trend for this year is clear — Usenet passed the torch to BitTorrent.

A quick search on Mininova or BTJunkie returns a huge list of every video found on Usenet, plus dozens more and growing hourly. Beyond public trackers, I’ve seen extensive activity on several private communities. On one of them, its members compiled a list of every event and were slowly adding their own recordings to create a massive archive of Olympics video.

And this is only Day 4! It’ll be interesting to see how much of the Olympics was captured, digitized, and uploaded by the end of the games.

Also interesting: If this chart from Mark Ghuneim is accurate, the thirst for pirated Olympics coverage is greatest in China.


    High demand in China? Probably because none of them are actually allowed to see the games. Spectators were banned from the cycling, and every event I have seen has had many more empty seats than full ones.

    HG Nelson (an Australian sports comedian/icon) suggested that they get all of the soldiers that are standing around guarding the events to go in and fill up the thousands of empty seats. But he conceded that them spectating with their rifles slung over arms may put the competitors off a little.

    I’m really surprised as to how low the quality is on Usenet – I would have expected there to be a strong audience of collaborators there – there already is for most other pieces of content.

    I have been quite pleased with the NBCOlympics streaming. For alternative events it simply is the best there is. No commentary, infrequent score updates – just raw footage at good quality. Being able to watch saber, badminton, or sailing is a real godsend. Definitely the best turnout of this Olympics.

    The quality on Usenet was bad in 2004, but it’s pretty insanely great this year, dominated by 720p HD video… It’s the coverage that’s not very good.

    …But he conceded that them spectating with their rifles slung over arms may put the competitors off a little…

    Except at the shooting

    Thanks for collecting this info and providing the historical contrast, Andy… interesting.

    That BitTorrent chart is a mystery to me too. The state CCTV network makes lots of Olympics video available, and is using peer-to-peer distribution to handle the serving issues (search “pplive olympics”). Maybe it’s the 720-pixel-high ratio that’s the difference…?


    @Andy: Yes – I meant to say “coverage.” I was able to snag both a 480 (regular HDTV) and a 720p version of the opening ceremony from Usenet – the improvement in quality in the 720 version is so tremendous as to make the other version almost comical. I’m looking forward to grabbing some more 720 copies of the major events. Quality is simply way too important here.

    I’ve been really impressed with the live stream footage off the NBC site. It’s very clear–and good to see Olympic coverage without cheering and other jingoistic coverage. We’ve got it hooked up to our home monitor and have been watching it with the kids.

    The canned NBC coverage does not come through as quickly and stops and starts on my mac

    I think the reason that Chinese downloader dominated the chart was that they want to collect the video.

    That being said, I heard rumors that BOB version (CCTV) got a serious camera angle problem, many people may want to see the NBC one.

    I will NEVER EVER install some proprietary media player [Microsoft Silverlight]. All the Olympic coverage is available on dozens and dozens of torrent sites for free and in all levels of quality. NBC took a babystep forward this year and good on them for that, but it was nothing close to what the free, open source community has already been doing for many years. So…. good on NBC for trying, but… FAIL.

    Also, I will never, ever forgive NBC for again butchering an Opening Ceremony. The commercials and the commentary ruined that broadcast. PERIOD.

    Johnny wrote:

    I will NEVER EVER install some proprietary media player [Microsoft Silverlight].

    So do you use Flash ???

    Calling everyone who is against intellectual property in principle or practice “pirates” isn’t that different from calling anti-slavery activists “nigger-lovers”.

    Pretty much the entire aboriginal world is against intellectual property, as yet another wrong, stupid, exploitive Western concept to justify the destruction machine.

    Much of the semi-developed (i.e. colonial) world sees it as a tool like military hardware. Ideally we’d all be better off without it, but if the bullies are going to wave it around, they want to be able to defend themselves.

    Much of the “Western” world rejects the principle as wrongheaded at the foundation. It could also be pointed out in the history of our law how it was NOT a fundamental part – often not a part at all – of copyright, patent, or trademark law.

    Pretty much every national success story in the industrial age, from the USA to Switzerland to Germany to Japan to China, has done so by wholesale violation of, or complete disrespect for, intellectual property law. To obey it makes you a colony, and a failure of a state whose wealth is continually stolen for no return.

    It is a radical new invention, by a bunch of extremists. The same ones whose effects are currently visible in the Middle East debacle, in America’s corrupt, failing economy, in the corporate world’s ignorant, sluggish non-response to climate change, in the military/industrial complex’s disregard of nearly everyone on the planet’s values regarding the treatment of their own local environment and economy.

    Personally I will continue opposing slavery until I die, regardless of which countries allow our outlaw it. I will continue opposing intellectual property until I die, regardless of which countries allow or outlaw it.

    If I see a chance to GET AWAY WITH freeing a slave, I will free a slave. If you are the slavemaster who suffers because you now have fewer slaves than your neighbors – too bad. You had it coming.

    Likewise I will teach everyone I know why I free slaves and how I free slaves and how they can help and how they can best direct their power against the slavers. The short version – profit. If it doesn’t pay, a corporation won’t do it, and they don’t even have to understand why. They just have to understand that it isn’t going to pay, and corporations are good at this.

    But I have no interest in GOING TO JAIL for slaves, or engaging in PUBLIC PROTEST on their behalf, because I simply don’t believe that either of these things does any good. Others, like classic advocates of civil disobedience, or naive good people just opening their eyes to the evil of our corporate/government merger, believe differently, and are welcome to publicly disobey laws, go to jail, get beaten up and poisoned as they choose.

    So, for the Olympics, given the incredible cheapness of actually recording the proceedings, and given the completely irrational, unpredictable, and widely varying ancillary costs, it’s a pretty straight market – those who offer better video for less cost (whether cash, bandwidth, ads, whatever) have demonstrated that they have negotiated the large picture more successfully. The fact that some did by random luck (i.e. they were born there, they worked for someone who got them admittance) – well, that was random luck.

    If a seller offers inferior product for higher cost, there’s no reason intellectual property law should compel you to choose it anyway. Not any more than, say, helmet law, or smoking too close to an open door, or parking after the meter runs out. There’s a penalty, fair or not, and you gambles your gambles and pays your price. But morally, it hasn’t a pseudopod to stand on.

    And if you genuinely can’t figure out how people can get paid for intellectual work without intellectual property, you really should just put your pennies back in your piggybank and leave the finances to adults.

    So – get to the point – how much pirate vs. official video do I watch? None at all – I’ve been boycotting the Olympics for a long time now. When they get serious about demonetizing, then I will again get serious about their notions of excellence.

    Wow if you seriously think NBC’s streaming video is “great quality” you need to check your eye sight. Its low res. and as blurry as looking through dirty coke bottle glasses. Also, you have no mention of internet forums where I’ve posted and dled excellent quality 1920×1080 .mp4 clips.

    But I appreciate you making a blog post about this. Maybe this will bring in a new wave of people ready to share their own videos. Remember, it is as easy as downloading FireRecord and plugging in your mac to your cable box through a cable box. Anyone with a cable box issued after April 1st 2004 can do this.

    Johnny wrote:

    I will NEVER EVER install some proprietary media player [Microsoft Silverlight].

    Matt wrote:

    So do you use Flash ???

    No way, no how. To reiterate “I will NEVER EVER install some proprietary media player”. This means Flash, Silverlight, Quicktime or any other. As a matter of fact macromedia.com has been in my HOST file since 2001. The only players I use are VLC and WMP v6.4. 99% of my 57 Terrabytes (yes, I do mean TBytes) are XviD and Divx. I have no use for any streaming sites and if there is an occasional viral video I want to see I can usually find a torrent, if not then the Free Download Manager can capture content from stream sites and I can play the .flv in VLC. I wouldn’t install Flash on any of my system even if they paid me. I rate them on almost the same level as Real Player. Just say NO to Flash, or Real.

    This site is awesome. http://snackfeed.com/

    Has every single olympic event– without all the commercials. I’ve been using it a lot since I’m asleep by the time they show events I actually want to see.

    I live in Shanghai and frequent a couple of Chinese BBSs. After the Opening Ceremony played in the US in high def, the number of requests for it on the boards was amazing. CCTV is doing a pretty good job of covering many, many events (you can do that when you have 14 government channels at your disposal), but like somebody said above the production just isn’t as flashy and camera handling isn’t as good as NBC’s (from what I’ve heard; Silverlight isn’t working for me).

    Lol Mario, you hit the mark. The quality isn’t something special. Anyway we should be happy that they share there vids.

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