How to Watch the 2012 Summer Olympics Online (Legally or Otherwise)

The four-year wait for summer’s worldwide sports spectacular is over: The 2012 Summer Olympics are finally here. (Literally, with the women’s and men’s soccer tournaments kicking off in advance of the opening ceremonies from London on Friday.) And they’re online in the United States, in full – if you have the right hookups. Everyone else is going to need some illicit non-Comcast methods.

Going the Comcast/Xfinity/NBC way is pretty simple, and rewarding as well; that corporate synergy has been fully tuned to offer a full-breadth online Olympics experience. Comcast/Xfinity broadband subscribers couldn’t have it any better, really; the company’s XfinityTV brand has been pressed into service for a high-definition streaming option to watch every single event of this Olympiad.

Logging into your acount at the XfinityTV home page opens up access to live or replay streams that, if you’re at home, are delivered to your computer, your Xbox or a TiVo outside of Comcast’s standard Internet traffic and broadband caps – a somewhat controversial approach that critics claim falls outside the consent decree with the U.S. Government that allowed Comcast to buy NBC. (Comcast, for its part, has consistently denied this.)

Whatever. The practical result for the two weeks of the Olympics is a superior stream of the entire Olympics; you’ll practically be able to see the spin on the ping-pong balls. (Sorry – we meant “table tennis.”) You may not get quite the same results bandwidth-wise if you’re not at home or on a Comcast network, but you can still tap in wherever you are just by logging into XfinityTV. And, inevitably, you don’t have to do this via a computer at all; NBC is perfectly happy to feed streams to your tablet or phone via the NBC Olympics Live Extra app for iOS or Android.

Those who aren’t part of the Comcast juggernaut still have a pretty good online alternative at NBCOlympics.com. As with XfinityTV, the NBC site will offer every event as “Live Extra” live streaming or replay. But there’s a critical kicker to this method: You must have a cable, telecom or satellite subscription that includes CNBC and MSNBC already, and you also have to set up a log-in with your provider before you can access NBCOlympics’s streams – you’ll be polled for that information.

There’s also an open question about how well NBCOlympics.com, as well as other key worldwide Olympics sites, will perform under the loads they are likely to see during the Games. Analytics firm Yottaa has already predicted that major sites will not be up to the challenge. Hey, NBC, time’s up – you’d better be ready for all those page and stream requests.

If you’re one of those folks who’ve decided to cut the cable cord or junk your dish, things get even more dicey; you have no legal pathway to streaming Olympics events. Comcast is clearly leveraging its heavy investment in the Olympics to promote its Xfinity brand and the pay TV business in general. If you’re willing to pay, the benefits for following the Olympics are more than ample; if you’re not, you are very out of luck.

Comcast, Shmomcast

Unless, that is, you turn to illegal streams. The usual passel of sites that specialize in pirating overseas satellite or cable streams of live sports are likely to have Olympics events as well, even given the famously litigious nature of the International Olympics Committee.

That could result in a pretty active game of Whack-a-Mole as sites try to stay ahead of the IOC, so you may need to keep checking for sites online with a Google search like “live olympics streaming”. But Stream2Watch is already posting an Olympics page, and other typical sites such as VIP Box, First Row Sports, and StreamTV.tv are likely to join in once the Games start in earnest.

As usual, you’re not going to get anything resembling the quality of the Comcast streams. You’re also going to have to whack your own moles in the form of incessant pop-ups. And you still need to follow ReadWriteWeb’s common-sense rules for picking up illegal streams, unless you want to increase the risk of hosing your computer with malware or unwanted software downloads. And the commentary may not always be in English.

On the other hand, if you do go this route, you’re also not going to get NBC’s soft, personality-driven approach to Olympics broadcasts, or the jingoism that can occasionally pop up when high-profile American athletes are competing, or the annoyingly picky gymnastics analysts.

It can be interesting and revealing to see the Games from a non-American perspective. Maybe Albanian announcers are also homers when they’re tracking their athletes, but how would you know unless you happen to speak Albanian?