I have to say that I had a bit of a moment in Rio. Fencing has always been rather impenetrable for the general public and particularly TV audiences.
It may just be wishful thinking but I think things are going to change for the better and in the following series of blog posts I will explain why.
The FIE have made many changes over the last few Olympic cycles which have really improved the TV appeal of the sport for a number of reasons. The floor lights first used in London 2012 we have already discussed on this blog and they do add a great deal of drama to proceedings but there are other presentation improvements that I also think need to be recognised and celebrated.
The realisation came about in part due to watching older Olympic footage before I went to Rio. Not wanting to sound desperately old; it struck me that only 16 years ago in Sydney the broadcast was almost unwatchable even to someone who understands fencing.
The picture was grainy, the motion blurry and you could hardly pick out the blades never mind the detail of blade interaction. There was hardly any on screen information either so if you flicked on to a team match you had no idea how it was going for some time.
Lighting of the fencers -
This has been a major step forward. I believe that it was Ioan Pop the technical director of the FIE at the time that came up with the concept of the very snappily named "virtual curtain". Finals pistes before 2000 had tended to be one sided with the audience only on one side of the piste and a black curtain behind the fencers which helped pick them out. When we went to a two sided affair with the audience on both sides some of the drama from a tv and photography perspective was lost.
In 2012 they first tried the virtual curtain which essentially meant that the white light from the rig above the fencers was shuttered so that it lined up with the edge of the piste. Unfortunately the lighting people got it a bit wrong and only put the lights directly in line with the centre line of the piste. On the test day the lights were facing directly downwards and only lit the tops of their heads and their shoulders! They realised that they had to do something but could only re angle the lights rather than move them as the rigging was all fixed. They slanted the lights forwards and backwards which lit the athletes from in front (creating glare in the fencers eyes) and behind but not really from the sides where the cameras were looking.
You can see from the image above that the virtual curtain is working and you can't see the background but the light is directly above the fencers causing them to be poorly lit and casting large shadows underneath them. By day two of the London games OBC (the Olympic broadcasting corporation) had insisted that the general arena lighting was turned up to make the TV images better. It hadn't quite worked as expected but the groundwork was done and the concept had been proven.
For Rio 2016 they nailed it and the virtual curtain was a roaring success. You only have to do a google image search for the games fencing event to see how successful it was.
Incredible images like the one below were commonplace.
The fencers are brightly and evenly lit allowing their action to be perfectly frozen by stills cameras. The background is so black that you would be hard pressed to know that there was anything behind them. It looks as though there really is a black curtain behind them.
This fantastic lighting helped produce better images and film than previously possible giving fencing more airtime than ever before.
There is more to come as I muse on the aftermath of the games but I remain hopeful that there is a bright future for fencing at the Olympics.