In 1996, 176.5 hours of the Olympics were broadcast in the U.S. This year? Try 5,535 hours across NBC's channels and sites alone. Holy crap, how are you going to watch all of that? Don't worry, there are ways.
This is a guide for U.S. users (I know, I wish we were based in French-Polynesia, too), but a lot of this will apply regardless of where you are. In the U.S., NBC has exclusive rights to live broadcasting the Olympics.
If You Have Cable
If you have a cable or dish subscription that includes MSNBC and CNBC, well, the Olympic world is your Olympic oyster. Congratulations, you have access to everything, and it's super easy. NBC's many networks will basically be transforming into Olympics coverage stations for the next few weeks. So you can watch all of that, but that's only the beginning. NBCOlympics.com is a massive orgy of content. Not only is it the best way to find out what's going to be broadcast and when, but you'll have access to live streams of every event as it happens. You can even pick through the schedule, mark the events you're interested in, and set it to email you a reminder before those events start.
You've also got access to some very slick mobile apps. If you have an iOS or Android device and a fast connection, get the NBC Olympics "Live Extra" App. You'll be able to stream anything that's happening live, rewind, and even view alternate angles in some cases. There's also the regular NBC Olympics App (also for iOS and Android) that'll help you keep track of the schedule, medal count, photos, and highlights. If you don't have iOS or Android, NBC has also built a robust mobile website. You can access all of these apps here.
Again, all this is only available if you're a cable or dish subscriber.
If You Don't Have Cable
Here's where things start to get a little tricker. If you don't have cable or a dish, at first glance it'll feel like you're going to miss out on just about everything. It doesn't have to be that way. It'll just take a little more effort.
Get your old rabbit-ear antenna set up just right on the windowsill, then tune your TV to NBC. Without cable, this is the only fully legitimate way you can watch the games live, and we use the term "live" loosely, as the time difference will mean that many are pre-recorded. Sounds pretty lame by comparison, yeah? We know. But what if you bent the rules just a little bit?
So NBC has exclusive right in the U.S., but in the U.K., those privileges go to the BBC. And guess what—the BBC doesn't require you sign in, have cable, or any kind of account. (You win this round, Socialism.) But here's the catch: You need to be in the U.K. Or, rather, it must appear that you're in the U.K. This is where proxies come in.
A proxy is basically just a spoofed IP address for your web browser. If you use a U.K.-based IP address, well, that's where the BBC will think you are. This opens up the streaming floodgates. A simple search of "free proxy UK" will turn up a ton of lists. The only problem is that free proxies tend to be slow and unreliable, but you might get lucky. There are also plenty of services that let you pay for proxies, which will generally be more secure and faster (and a lot cheaper than a cable subscription—generally around $10 a month). Here's how to use a proxy:
Open up an alternate web browser. Do you normally use Chrome? Then use Firefox, Safari, or IE for this. Go into your browser's advanced settings, usually under Network, and you'll see something like "Manual proxy configuration." (Note: take a screen cap or at least write down your current configuation so you can switch it back when you're done watching. That's important.) Enter the proxy IP address and the port number (you may see it listed like IPADDRESS:PORT). Click okay, and then test it by going to whatismyipaddress.com. It should display your proxy IP number as well as your spoofed location, which should be in the U.K. If that's working, then navigate to the BBC's Olympic page and stream 'til your eyes fall out.
WARNING: While you're using a proxy address, do not enter any passwords, credit card information, or anything else that you don't want stolen. You're essentially routing your connection though someone else's computer, and they can almost certainly see what you're looking at and read what you type in. That's why you're using your alternate browser. Use it just for streaming the games, and as soon as you're done, go into your settings and put it back the way it was.
So, in most countries, some company has an exclusive right to broadcast the Olympics. But that isn't true in every country. The Olympics, being rad, have decided to stream it themselves this year, live, on YouTube. The only catch is, again, you have appear to be in one of those exempt countries. Use the same proxy trick mentioned above, then click over to the Official Olympics YouTube Channel.
This is probably easier than dealing with proxies, but it can be a bit dodgy. There are ton of people pulling content from live broadcasts and re-streaming it online for free. Generally speaking, you can just click the thing you want to watch, and watch it. The big, big word of warning is that these sites are notorious for having a ton of pop-up ads and malware. In other words, activate your pop-up blocker if you have one, and don't click on anything you don't have do. You'll probably have to click on X's to close ads that are in the way, and these may try to open new windows. Just be very careful here. Those warnings aside, here are a few of these nefarious sites:
If you have an rooted Android phone or tablet, you can install a "market enabler" app that will essentially trick Google into thinking you're in the U.K. You can then download the BBC iPlayer app which will allow you to stream the Olympics right to your device.
Rooting your device can be challenging, though. It's certainly not recommended for non-technical users, and everyone should be aware that you can void your device's warranty and potentially turn the thing into a paperweight. If you're already rooted, hey, give it a shot. (BBC iPlayer is also available in the iOS App Store and in BlackBerry App World. If you can trick either of those into working in the U.S., please tell us how you did it.)
Stuff That May Or May Not Work
The following is a list of things we could not get to work. But you may have more luck than we did. If you do, let us know.
- Roku: Man, we really wanted the Roku to work for this—the BBC iPlayer is available for it, after all. But, as far as we can tell, it's only available for the U.K. version of the Roku Player. Simply using a proxy isn't going to do it, though.
- VPN: We tried the virtual private network (VPN) route to get the BBC app to work. It kiiiinda worked, but you're going to need a pretty fast VPN for streaming HD video. We didn't have much luck with the free ones we tried.
- PlayStation 3: We've yet to try this ourselves, but the BBC has just recently updated their BBC Sports app for the PS3 to support HD streams of live video. Once again, you're going to have to trick your PlayStation into thinking it's in the U.K. But if you can do it, more power to you.
- TOR: The problem with TOR is you can't specifically set your egress point (country of origin), but they do have a worldwide network, so you might be able to get it going. UPDATE: If you want to give TOR a shot, follow reader Dannie A's advice in this comment thread.
Got your own tips or tricks for watching? Please share with the class.
UPDATE: Here's a great tip from reader alphabet-soup in the discussion below:
If you don't have cable, activate the NBC "Live Extra" app while on a connection of someone who does have a subscription. I installed the iPad app and activated it at a friend's house a week ago, and the app continues to stay logged in on any wifi connection. I was even able to update the app and it retained the login information.
UPDATE 2: Piggybacking on this last update, reader Brian Alexander just added:
Same thing goes for the full desktop app, except you don't even have to be at the residence in question to sign in. I just called my mom and asked for her Direct TV log in, doesn't seem to yell at me when watching from both her house and mine a few miles away.
I just tried this with my dad's login (who is about 3,000 miles away) and I can confirm that this works. You were going to call your parents today anyway, weren't you?
Keep 'em coming!