A couple of months ago in this space, after I lambasted NBC for its nationwide embargo of live telecasting of the prime ski and snowboarding events, my computer was clogged with email from outraged viewers. "How would football fans feel if you had the rights to the Super Bowl, then didn't show it live?" Tom McIntosh asked NBC in an angry letter, which the Illinois skier wrote when the network refused to air the men's downhill as it happened on opening Sunday.
The quality of NBC's overall February coverage of Salt Lake actually exceeded my gloomy expectations. Anchor Bob Costas set the tone. Costas has a modest demeanor, a sly sense of humor at times, is well-spoken and knowledgeable about sports. The cross-country ski racing was treated with sensitive camera work and intelligent commentary by Al Trautwig and Paul Robbins. The infamous up-close-and-personals seemed less cloying than I recall from past Olympics. The austere lifestyle and work ethic of the Croatian Kostelics were nicely documented. The playing out of Picabo Street's swan song lasted as long as the Ring of the Nibelungen. It could have been worse. Imagine rambunctious, tasteless Fox presenting the Olympics!
Unlike the ski events, the hockey games were interrupted by few commercials, for which we can thank the continuous-play rules of the international hockey federation, not NBC. After the intense, fast-paced Canadian-Czech 3-3 tie game on cable's MSNBC ended at 8 p.m., I switched to NBC for the edited tape delay of a freestyle aerials contest. It was like switching from a sprint to a funeral procession.
While ski racing may not be the liveliest spectator sport, NBC did little to enhance it. As for anyone hoping to view races live from the next Olympics, there's little reason for optimism. The 2006 ski events will take place in Sestriere, Italy, so most competitions will occur early in the morning by American clocks. NBC will have plenty of reason to show the races taped and edited later in the day or at night. I don't have a quarrel with that. But, NBC, you could do better than you did at Salt Lake. Here are a few suggestions.
BE HONEST. Give up your pathetic attempt to make the races appear as if they're live. Viewers aren't stupid. We can spot the missing bib numbers. If you aren't going to show the racers you've omitted in your carefully edited tape, at least furnish us with a summary of what happened to them. While the women's super G was going on, Dave Savile, a SKI reader in New York, telephoned England, where his son was watching the race live. "At one point only one woman out of six in the middle of the order managed to get down the course," reported Savile. "To the European viewer, this was drama. Here in the U.S., we got our usual evening presentation. . . three competitors, followed by five commercials to ensure we lost the plot. Where was the drama talked of by my son watching it in England?"
Here's a stunner. No fewer than 36 racers fell in the first runs of the men's and women's slaloms, yet I heard not a word of the carnage on TV. Given a similar scenario in 2006, with hours of editing time, NBC could create a montage of the crashes. It would be engrossing TV, while revealing what truly happened.
CLARIFY EXPLANATIONS WITH GRAPHICS. When people sweeping ice with brooms suddenly became a popular event to watch, you responded by perceptively explaining curling to the uninformed viewer. Do it with alpine skiing. Give us diagrams of the racers' line options through different turn combinations and graphic, less wordy explanations of how boots and short shaped skis can cause falls and knee injuries. We learned that today's ski jumpers are light in weight. Missing was a visual of why teenaged flyweights have an advantage.
At home, with guests, I was watching the men's super G. On top of the course, U.S. racer Daron Rahlves was crouched, near the starting gate. Bent over, concentrating mightily, his eyes closed, his head annd shoulders made a weaving motion. "What's he doing?" asked my friends. I explained that a racer like Rahlves memorizes the entire line he intends to follow as he speeds at 70 mph down the course. Why was I, not NBC, helping my friends appreciate the race?
SIMUL-CAM IS TERRIFIC. USE IT! It's a European-developed, post-production technique of imaging the first and second-place racers as if they were competing on the course at the same time. SimulCam is most compelling if you show the racers from start to finish. By showing only snippets, NBC revealed the ignorance directing its ski coverage.
SHOW SLALOM LIVE ON WEEKENDS. Demand that the 2006 slaloms in Italy be run under lights, something which Sestriere does spectacularly well. Night slaloms on Saturday and Sunday could be shown live in the afternoon here. Just don't insult us again as you did when the men's downhill was about to happen. NBC's Channel 4 in New York presented a home decorating program.
END THE SICKENING JINGOISM, the obsession with Americans, while downplaying other athletes. The women's giant slalom opened with NBC speculating about whether America's failing ace Kristina Koznick had a chance, while the rest of the world was riveted on whether the Croatian Janica Kostelic could be the first woman to win three alpine ski gold medals in an Olympics. After Koznick fell, NBC continued its obsession by wondering about Bode Miller's chances the next day.
SUPPLY AERIAL TWIRLERS WITH NEW UNIFORMS! Encourage the halfpipe snowboarders and ski aerialists to wear tight-fitting costumes, like ski jumpers and figure skaters, so that we and the judges can better rate the McTwists and stale fishes. Baggy pants and jackets are a hindrance to judging, although consistent with sports whose periodicals are designed to be almost unreadable.
ADD AN EXCITING COMBINED. The time compression of television helped your fine presentation of the alpine combined, which used to be a snoozer. Since you have all that clout with the IOC, why not suggest a 2006 demonstration alpine event similar to the nordic combined, demanding skills in two disciplines with two kinds of gear? The king of the mountain should be the guy who's best at skiing and snowboarding. By the way, if GS skiers made as many technical errors as I saw in the snowboard parallel race (skidding out of a desired line, or simply skidding out of the course), it would be laughable. Or did the event simply make the best case for the superiority of skis as a tool to negotiate gates?
TELL US THE TRUTH ABOUT MEDAL COUNTS. In an awesome inflation, the number of events in the Winter Games has doubled in five Olympiads-from 39 events in 1984 to 78 events at Salt Lake. It's deceptive not to mention this fact when proclaiming that a nation or a competitor has set a new record for medals won. Kostelic won more medals than Killy or Sailer because those guys couldn't win more than three.
The U.S. Ski Team (USST) went into the Salt Lake Olympics with the goal of winning 10 medals. I heard no mention that the medals would be derived from a total of 54 alpine, freestyle and snowboarding medals, or three times more than the non-nordic total of 18 medals in 1984, when five were won by U.S. racers. The U.S. Ski Team lavishes most of its money on the alpine ski racers, yet it derived half of its medals at the Games from snowboarding, a culture which in the past has had little love for the USST or the FIS.
As Janica Kostelic showed, money doesn't buy medals. It doesn't buy medals any more than paying the most for television rights delivers the best programming. As even the puniest intellect knows, the only good sports shows are live. It's a thought worth keeping as we look forward to Torino 2006, the final Winter Games for which NBC purchased rights.