Racing the yellow line: Origin of the world record line on swimming broadcasts

If you've watched any of Katie Ledecky's races during the Rio Olympics, then you're familiar with the infamous yellow world-record line. What's the origin of that cool piece of technology?
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One of the interesting production elements for NBC’s Olympic swimming coverage is the World Record Line, the yellow superimposed line that appears on the water’s surface during every race that shows how fast a swimmer needs to go to break the existing world record. (Perhaps it should be renamed The Katie Ledecky Line.) The virtual production element made its Olympic debut in Sydney in 2000 and has been a staple of NBC’s swimming coverage since.

Now, here is something you probably did not know:

NBC has no control over it when you see it.

“Olympic Broadcasting Services, known as OBS, provides us with great pictures and the World Record Line,” said NBC Olympics lead swimming producer Tommy Roy, in an email from Rio. “We have no control over when it shows up or goes away, but they do a great job of inserting it in when appropriate. It clearly adds another element for viewers.”

OBS produces and transmits live radio and television coverage of every sport from every Olympic venue via the International Signal or World Feed (Here is a good primer on OBS).

They are responsible for delivering the images and sounds of the Games to viewers (via rightsholders) around the globe.

How did we arrive at viewers getting such cool technology? The World Record Line virtual imaging technology was developed by the Israel-based company Orad Hi-Tec Systems (the company was bought by Avid in 2015) and debuted during Australian Nine Network’s television and Web coverage of the Australia’s Olympic qualifying swimming trials in 2000. The graphics enabled viewers to watch athletes approach and exceed the current world record as the events unfolded. Networks across the globe (NBC in the United States, ARD in Germany, NHK in Japan, France2 and Australia’s Channel 7) used it during the Sydney Games, and it has since been used in every Summer Olympics, including for the events at Rio’s Olympic Aquatics Stadium.

At the midway point, evaluating NBC's coverage of the 2016 Rio Olympics

“When I first saw it, I knew it had the potential to revolutionize how we watch swimming on television, similar to the first down line in football,” Roy said. “It adds another layer of context and suspense for the viewer at home. Everyone wants to see who will win, and the only thing more exciting than a win is seeing someone make history in the pool. That added context really puts these swimmers’ world class speed in perspective.”