Philip Barker

This week in London, and no doubt in Paris too, they've been raising a glass or two to celebrate a significant anniversary for the international television channel Eurosport.

When it was launched 30-years ago this week, it was hailed as the most significant development in sports television since the advent of colour over two decades earlier.

Eurosport was to be "Pan European". It was described by Rupert Murdoch's Sky television as "an historic joint venture" with the European Broadcasting Union (EBU).

In December 1988, the new Astra satellite blasted into space. This was to carry the pictures for the new channel and many others besides.

Eurosport's first day began at 7pm European time with tennis from Malmö - Sweden versus Italy in the Davis Cup. The opening followed the American example as a tennis ball transformed into the logo of the sponsors while the voiceover announced "the 1989 Davis Cup is brought to you by Nutrasweet, the taste the world is turning to".

Then there was Alpine skiing from the World Championships in Vail, Colorado, the "gruelling but gripping" ’World Cyclo-Cross Championships from France, World Cup bobsleigh from Cortina D'Ampezzo and, finally, Test cricket with Australia against West Indies.

The channel was not yet round the clock but each day the previous night's viewing was replayed en-bloc.

Such an enterprise would have astonished the pioneers of television in the 1920s and 1930s. A baseball match played by the Waseda baseball club in Tokyo was televised in 1931 and the same year the Scottish engineer John Logie Baird was experimenting in transmitting pictures from the Derby at Epsom.

Television cameras were seen at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but the cameras were huge. The pictures were beamed to viewing rooms around Berlin and in the Olympic Village but no further.

By the time the 1948 Games were held in London, viewers could at least watch in the comfort of their own homes but only if they lived close to the capital.

The EBU was launched in 1950 and it was they who launched the Eurovision Song Contest. It stood the test of time but, even more significantly, the EBU also beamed the 1954 FIFA World Cup across the continent.

There were not yet transatlantic satellites. In 1960 the American network CBS transmitted coverage of the Olympics from Rome, but it was necessary to fly the tapes back to the United States before they were broadcast.

"Sometimes the tapes were frozen from their long trip in a cold cargo hold," recalled presenter Jim McKay, who described those early broadcasts as "a journey into chaos".

The "early bird" satellite opened the way for intercontinental coverage of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and, by 1968, much of the world was receiving pictures in colour. There were a few anxious nights for the technicians when Intelsat 3 crashed, but the pathway of Olympic pictures was switched to the ATS satellite, 22,000 miles above the Atlantic. This was capable of sending television images in a third of a second.

By the late 1970s an all-sports channel was on the air in the US. It was launched in America by communications executive Bill Rasmussen and his son Scott in 1979. It had the backing of Getty Oil. They had made Bristol Connecticut their base and called it ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network.) It grew rapidly from one channel in the early years and is today a major international network of stations.

In Europe, Screensport emerged in the early 1980s, backed by among others ESPN and WH Smith. This was based in North West England and broadcast across Europe.

Sports rights were now commanding huge sums. The American network ABC had parted with $309 million (£239 million/€273 million) for the right to show the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. An athletics meeting at Crystal Palace in 1985 had been extended to two days to accommodate US television's wish to show the race between Mary Decker and Zola Budd. This meeting had come about as a result of their infamous collision at the previous year's Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It proved lucrative for both runners.

Although the EBU was growing and held rights to a great number of events, it was proving impossible for terrestrial broadcasters to do justice to all. Sponsors demanded more exposure for their investment.

Privately owned television was on the march. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi's Canale Cinque, and in France Canal+, were doing well. It helped that home computers were now within the financial reach of many more and it had also become possible for an individual house holder to own a television satellite dish of their own. This came with a small "set top box" which offered much more than the domestic fare.

And so, in February 1989, came Eurosport, described by publicists as "the dawn of television's new age".

The executive in charge was David Hill, an Australian who masterminded Kerry Packer's groundbreaking World Series Cricket in the late 1970s. His team included Richard Russell of ITV, Olympic medallist turned television executive Adrian Metcalfe and Bob Kemp, an Australian director destined to win the International Olympic Committee's Golden Rings prize in later years.

The EBU deal brought major athletics events, including the World Cross Country Championships, what were then known as the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) Grand Prix meets and the 1989 IAAF World Cup in Barcelona which doubled as the re-inauguration of the Montjuic Stadium. 

Unseasonable rain meant Eurosport had one of its memorable images. As the official athletes sheltered in the stand, one of the ground-staff became a "hurdler". Today his attempts to negotiate the barriers would have gone "viral".

Eurosport's headquarters are now in Issy Les Moulineaux in Paris ©Wikipedia
Eurosport's headquarters are now in Issy Les Moulineaux in Paris ©Wikipedia

At the time, the Berlin Wall had not yet fallen but deals were struck with Intervision, the organisation for countries behind the Iron Curtain. 

The German Democratic Republic dominated international athletics. For the first time, the GDR domestic championships were widely shown across the continent. Viewers saw established stars such as Silke Moller in her Dynamo Berlin club vest. It later emerged the club was sponsored by the East German STASI or secret police.

The EBU deal ensured that 1990 FIFA World Cup qualifiers were shown more widely than ever. There was even coverage from Asia of United Arab Emirates versus Qatar which featured the commentary debut of a future insidethegames columnist.

The following summer Eurosport covered the finals for the first time. Every match in Italy was shown in full. The on screen graphics were enhanced by a dancing "Ciao" mascot and coverage was heavily sponsored.

By now, Eurosport was multi-lingual. The viewer could choose which language they wanted to hear. English was from London or there was German or Dutch, added in Hilversum which had become the continental hub for the station. The choice is even greater now.

In the autumn of 1990, they transmitted the Olympic host city vote for the 1996 Olympic Games from Tokyo. It was the first time this had been broadcast simultaneously across a continent.

Such was the competitive nature of television rights, that legal action was never far from the surface, and after an appeal by rival channel Screensport, through the European courts, Sky relinquished its holdings with Eurosport.

The Channel moved its operation and its headquarters to Paris where it remains to this day as part of the Discovery Group. It covered its first Olympics in 1992 and is still a major rights holder.

The offices of Eurosport are in Issy Les Moulineaux, a superb of Paris twinned by happy coincidence with Osterley in West London, where the whole venture began in 1989.