Déjà-vu: GIFs at the Olympic Games 1900, 2012 and 2016

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Round and round it goes for the gymnast on the high bar. Eternally. Always in the same manner. Actually, their endurance should come to an end eventually, but the motion is captured in a GIF loop that lasts as long as the spectators remain in curiosity*. Reoccurring motions are amongst the classical GIF motifs, either by humans, animals or machines, either dance, assembly line or bodily exercise.

Gymnastics have been (like in this animation by Ottomar Anschütz) and still are a popular motif for GIFs.
Gymnastics have been (like in this animation by Ottomar Anschütz) and still are a popular motif for GIFs.

But the motif is not always a perfect loop of motion, at all. Fails or other non-looping clips are famous as well. However, sport events are one of the most common branch of GIF motif providers.

Four years ago – one Olympiad – we witnessed the hype of the GIF format’s 25th anniversary. This date marks the phase in GIF culture history when a broad audience became aware of GIFs as a cultural technique. The Oxford Dictionary named „gif“ their word of the year, countless retrospections were published in the media and GIFs have been discovered as a journalistic device.

This new appropriation probably emerged during the Olympic Games in London in the same year. Thanks to an animation of a gymnastic exercise in permanent repetition, the nuances of this sport become visible in detail. This way, the judging panel’s rating – based on the critical evaluation of experts – becomes more comprehensible for the audience.

The desire to precisely analyse the movement of humans and animals already existed more than a century ago and image series have been used back then as well. The chronophotography of a galloping horse, made by Eadweard Muybridge, is still famous and iconic. But not only him, Etienne-Jules Marey, Ottomar Anschütz, Georges Demenÿ and others put motion sequences at the centre of their work as photographers and engineers. Their chronophotographies captured persons who climbed stairs, performed somersaults or other movements – and have been almost naked in many cases.

During this pre- and early historic phase of cinematic history, Marey attended the Olympic Games in Paris in the year 1900 to produce image series of athletes. He used an obscure apparatus that resembled a rifle rather than a camera and shot several meters of film in a short time span. Just like GIFs illustrate motion sequences very well, Marey’s picture series were a perfect base to explore the technique of athletes from other countries.

By analysing single frames, many more details became visible than with the mere glimpse of the eyes during the event itself. Not only could Marey realise that the team from the USA have been victorious because of their superior technique, he later used his image series to teach his fellow French athletes these very techniques.

Marey was not interested in animating his images, his foremost interest was the inspection of single frames. Nowadays it is the other way round. The fine specifics of athletic movement are, thanks to looping GIFs, vividly captured without losing the flow of motion.

Since the Olympic Games in London 2012, the use of GIFs in online journalism evolved, of course. They are utilised mainly for entertaining purposes, for example to recap the “best moments” of a film or a TV show. Sport GIFs do not fall short here, like in this collection of tennis GIFs, that allegedly make you laugh, cry and scream (I smell… clickbait), or numerous football GIFs on Twitter, that already caused conflicts with the NFL.

Despite all disadvantages and limitations of the GIF format, it can serve well for reporting or even knowledge transfer and shows a high potential for sport coverage. But since GIFs are mostly used for entertainment, it remains to be seen whether the 2016 Olympic Games stimulate the full capacity of animations or if journalists will use GIFs merely as a clickbait device.


*translation note: In the original German version of this text, I used the term “Schaulust” which draws a subtle connection to scopophila (pleasure in looking).

Literature tip regarding the work of Marey, including the pictures of Olympic Games in 1900:
Braun, Marta (1994): Picturing Time. The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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