The Olympics is a truly global phenomenon, with London 2012 reaching more than half of the world’s population. And with the internet now a staple tool in how anything is broadcasted, of course, GIFs were integral to reliving our favourite moments – from McKayla Maroney’s flawless vault to Liu Xiang kissing his final hurdle. But at Rio 2016, the IOC has banned our beloved GIFs from the Games.
In a bid to tighten its ever-slippery grip on broadcasting rights, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) has banned the creation of GIFs, Vines, and other animated or short-form video formats from official Olympic events. The IOC’s anxiety about maintaining exclusivity in an increasingly fragmented media landscape may seem outdated, but it’s linked to huge financial benefits. Discovery won pan-Europe broadcasting rights for a cool £920 million, while in the US, NBC secured the rights to broadcast the Olympics until 2032 for $7.5 billion.
A GIF can say a thousand words
IOC (2016) ©
The ban has caused uproar internetwide. But why, in our age of media omnivorousness, are we so obsessed with the GIF? If Rio 2016 happens, and no one makes a GIF of it, does that mean it didn’t really happen? Of course not. But it may mean we enjoy it less. First and foremost, it’s about the growing importance of video content. “Video is processed by the brain 60,000 times faster than text,” writes web psychologist Dr. Liraz Margalit. “And while reading is all about thinking, video is better at getting us to feel.” Our emotions are controlled by mirror neurons, which fire not just when we ourselves do something, but when we witness someone else perform an action, too. Because our mirror neurons don’t discriminate between cinema and real life, videos tend to elicit much stronger immediate reactions from us than text.
But a GIF provides viewers with something even stronger, especially with live broadcasting. They played an important role in helping people connect to London 2012. “You didn’t need to watch the whole telecast,” writes journalist Mihir Pakar. “The looping GIFs perfectly embed into the article at just the right places, showing you every highlight.” These loops of London 2012 gold live on in GIF history – immortalising not only those huge moments, but the small instances that would’ve been forgotten, or overlooked altogether, had they been left to exist amid a sea of lengthier video coverage. How many people would’ve caught Nic Batum punching Juan Carlos Navarro in the balls? Or the look on Michael Phelps’ face at his last ever medal ceremony? What will we miss at Rio 2016 as a result of the war on GIFs?
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Alex Quicho is a writer and cultural researcher in London. Born in Boston and raised in Manila, she writes about identity, futures, and soft power in art and design.
Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.