Higher, faster, stronger: how the London 2012 digital experience broke new boundaries

Paralympic closing ceremonyLondon 2012 may be over, but the digital world continues to reverberate to a dizzying halo of statistical superlatives.

The 44 world records we’ve seen broken at the Olympic Games and 251 at the Paralympic Games were accompanied by unparalleled broadcast reach, new milestones of social media engagement and ever more progressive uses of digital technology.

It’s a significantly transformed landscape from the one in which the British Olympic Association first began working on London’s bid in 1997, when broadband internet reached just 17 per cent of the UK population, Nokia commanded 37 per cent of the global mobile phone market and Google operated under the name Backrub.

Fast-forward 15 years and the climax of the Games saw data pouring from the Olympic Park at 60GB per second into a socially connected world where internet-enabled devices outnumber people. The journey to these Games has run parallel to a modern digital revolution, and the effect it has had on everything we do has never been more apparent.

There are a host of opportunities to illustrate how the Olympic spirit has been digitally transposed at different moments along the road to 2012. Within Zone, our MD Jon Davie, who edited the London 2012 bid site, recalls a mobile strategy that urged visitors to convey their support via SMS.

In 2010 we designed, built and managed Channel 4’s Paralympic hub, beginning the task of bringing disability sport to a mainstream audience through insightful editorial and social conversation. The functionality has changed along this road, but the effectiveness of engaging content has not.

As London hands over the baton to Brazil, some of the most striking data to have emerged from this summer’s games has been regarding wireless devices. Some 60 per cent of visits to the London 2012 site and 33 per cent of those viewing BBC coverage came via mobile. And this isn’t just browsing on the go, but also second screen interactions – as proven by the viewing habits of the average US Xfinity customer, who consumed Olympic livestreams through 2.4 devices. Indeed, the highest spikes in Olympic web traffic came from mobile as opposed to desktop – an inconceivable situation just a few years ago.

The pace of behavioural change is also distinct, as LOCOG communications director Jackie-Brock Doyle has noted: 

In Sydney (2000), there was hardly any fast internet. In Athens (2004), there were hardly any smartphones. In Beijing (2008), hardly anyone had social networks. That’s all changed. Here, everyone has all that and will be consuming the games in a different way.

The social media appetites of Olympics followers were voracious, generating more tweets in a single day than Beijing could muster in an entire fortnight. In 2005, the London 2012 bid site prompted us to share our support by sending an e-card. Today, our support is offered instinctively by spurring on Usain Bolt at a rate of 74,000 tweets per second.

We can reasonably expect the advancement in Rio 2016 to be considerable too. 4G wireless technology is due to arrive there in time for the 2014 World Cup, while forecasts of police equipped with biometrically-enhanced glasses with facial recognition capabilities can no longer be confined to science fiction. Only earlier this week we saw Google’s Project Glass take another step closer to the consumer market.

In each field of sport and technology we adapt to constantly changing environments, but are fuelled by the same intrinsic urge to exceed our limits – higher, faster and stronger than ever before.

Matt Brown is a strategist at digital agency Zone.