We’ve all heard it. Now that the Olympics are being telecast on several outlets, we hear it often. When the network takes a break from the coverage, you will see the Rio logo on the screen accompanied by five beats of the tympani followed by the Olympic fanfare.
Bum-bumpa-bum-bump…before the blare of trumpets.
And every time you hear those drums, you are hearing the work of László Borbély, 78, a Hungarian percussionist who has been living a quiet life outside of Mexico City since defecting from a communist controlled Hungary during an orchestra tour of North America in the late 1960’s. His quiet life is interrupted for two-and-a-half weeks every four years for the Summer Olympic Games.
Because of an arcane copyright error taking place in Mexico City in 1968, and a series of seemingly innocuous errors, László Borbély and only Borbély, is permitted to legally play the five note fanfare introduction on the tympani.
Many believe that the Olympic Fanfare was written by John Williams, and they are not completely wrong. In 1958, a composer named Leo Arnaud, composed a piece called “The Bugler’s Dream” as part of a larger piece called “The Charge Suite”. Williams wrote his Olympic piece for the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Since that time, the first 45 seconds of Arnaud’s piece was added to the beginning of the Williams piece.
Like Williams, Arnaud was a composer who worked in Hollywood for the film industry. He was born in France and came to the United States in 1931 at the age of 27. ABC television, who owned the rights to broadcast the 1968 games in Mexico City, chose “The Bugler’s Dream” as its new Olympic Fanfare to introduce the television production.
An orchestra was assembled from American studio musicians in a soundstage in Mexico City a week before the games. The tympanist for this orchestra was stricken with a sudden case of Montezuma’s Revenge, or what is referred to today as dysentery. A couple of the musicians recognized László Borbély from a previous concert tour. Borbély, who was working at the studio as a technician, was quickly called into service for the recording of the music. He played the fanfare as well as a few other pieces and immediately went home.
The problem arose when an auditor for the studio went through the signed releases for the orchestra members. The auditor was told that the tympanist who signed the document did not perform on the recording. This was not expected to be a big problem as the network quickly found out about Borbély and dispatched a clerk to his home to acquire the appropriate release. Because of a language gap, Borbély misunderstood the instructions and filed the document away unsigned.
It turns out that one of the performances by Borbély and the rest of the orchestra went over the air live, rather than having been recorded. Because of this and some rather convoluted Mexican copyright law, Borbély became the de facto owner the five note introduction. All of this turned up when Avery Blumenthal, a lawyer representing the musician’s union in Los Angeles, unraveled the issue shortly before the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. After a brief search, László Borbély was found and flown to Los Angeles. When offered the opportunity to sign his rights to the five notes over to ABC Television, Borbély politely declined. With only days remaining before the Opening Ceremonies, the network brought him along to Munich, where he played the intro each time it was needed.
Because of a different set of copyright laws in Japan, ABC was able to avoid a similar problem during any Winter Olympiad, but continued to use Borbély for every summer games since. There was some concern about Borbély being able to go to Moscow in 1980, but with the U.S. boycott, it never became an issue. Borbély moved on to NBC when they obtained the broadcast rights to the games and has been in attendance for eleven Olympic Games prior to Rio.
Now, he sits in a small sound-proof room in a studio in the main television production venue. Any time there is a commercial break, a director will cue László Borbély. He will play the same five notes that he has played representing the Olympic spirit for 48 years. He hopes to be around for the next one in Tokyo in 2020.