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A Look Back

On Sept. 17, Dave Mazza, NBC Olympics senior vice president of engineering, will head home from Athens for a few weeks of vacation. Then he begins work on his next big project: getting ready for the 2006 Winter Games in Turino, Italy, in HD. Before he starts planning the future, he talked with
B&C about the biggest Olympics broadcast operation ever.

How did Athens compare with previous games?

This Olympics was the hardest thing we've ever done: the security, the late construction, difficulty with the phones and power. Add in the huge increase in hours, which made it more complex.

Did the power problems become an issue during the games?

Miraculously, no. We could say it's because we all did our due diligence before we started, but a lot was also luck. Power-wise, everything settled down by the time we hit opening ceremonies, and telecommunications did, too. But it was rather unstable until the last minute.

What will you remember as some of the big technical glitches?

One happened prior to air. There are self-healing Sonet rings [running throughout Greece], which have two fiber cables for transmission running in opposite directions. If one fails, the traffic will turn around and go the other way. The network heals itself. But 10 days before the opening ceremonies, both sides of a Sonet ring got cut, and that's the first time I ever saw that. There was a cut somewhere near the main stadium that caused a whole bunch of services to divert the other way. Then a farmer in a field about 200 miles from here cut the other side.

Another big event happened at midnight, when someone called and said the HD truck is on fire. As it turned out, it wasn't really a fire, but they lost the neutral leg in the power bay of the HD truck. When that happens, the voltage floats up and goes to almost twice normal levels. The entire monitor wall started sparking and belching black smoke. After 30 seconds, they got it turned off, but we also lost the HD signal.

What did you do?

We ran the HD masters of that day's show into the IBC, where we had an HD tape deck, and got the HD feed on air again. We found a shopping cart and used it to get another HD deck, a compressor and a standards converter rolled into the IBC. Then it was up to the guys to work on the truck overnight and fix more than 50 devices.

What were your feelings at the closing ceremonies?

There was a huge sigh of relief, and it definitely helped that everyone from the executives on down was leaving here happy. We had so few problems that were visible to viewers that everyone was ecstatic. We knew it was going to be hard, and we said early on it'll be that much sweeter when it goes well. That was definitely the case.