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Columnist
NBC caught off guard when Olympics lives up to the hype
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist

Commentators are still talking about the dramatic finish to the 4x100-meter freestyle relay that brought U.S. swimmers Michael Phelps, left, Garret Weber-Gale, Cullen Jones and Jason Lezak the gold medal Monday in Beijing.

 

Associated Press

United States' Michael Phelps, right, and teammate Garret Weber-Gale celebrate winning the gold in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay final at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

 

Associated Press

United States' swimmers, from left, Garret Weber-Gale, Jason Lezak, Michael Phelps and Cullen Jones celebrate winning the gold medal in the men's 4x100-meter freestyle relay final during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing Monday.

 

Associated Press

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Published: 8/12/2008 12:07 AM

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The problem with NBC's multichannel, round-the-clock, pull-out-all-the-stops Olympic coverage is it leaves the network's announcers nowhere to go when an event actually lives up to the hype.

Swimming color analyst Rowdy Gaines called the 4X100-meter gold-medal U.S. victory Monday in Beijing - Sunday night back home in the States - "the most incredible relay sprint I've ever seen in my life," and perhaps it was. Yet with all the other Olympic hyperbole, it just left a viewer to wonder, "Was it really as good as it seemed - as good as NBC and its announcers made it appear?"

It sure was, at least in that case.

Give NBC credit for creating a classic story line that then came into play as if it had been scripted. It has taken something spectacular for anything to overshadow Michael Phelps' march toward a record-breaking 10th gold medal, but Gaines and play-by-play announcer Dan Hicks instead played up the grudge match between Phelps' U.S. team and the French, who were quoted as saying, "The Americans, we are going to smash them."

That bulletin-board material no doubt fired up the U.S. foursome even more than it fired up U.S. viewers, and it fired them up plenty. French swimmers beat U.S. swimmers? No way, no how, not even if a nude Carla Bruni were waiting at the finish line in the French lane. All I know is everyone was screaming in my household when Jason Lezak swam down Alain Bernard and beat him to the wall. And it was made doubly dramatic by NBC's nifty technology using a digitally created green line to show that all the top teams were smashing the world record.

For a moment, it was secondary that Phelps had earned an eighth individual gold by swimming the second leg, and that's the way it should be in the Olympics. Yet was it really "one of the most unbelievable team efforts we've ever seen in relay history," as Gaines went on to insist? It seems as if every Olympics produces something of the sort (remember the Aussies upsetting the Americans in Sydney eight years ago?) and to suggest otherwise is to hype the obvious.

They weren't backing down from that stance on a media conference call Monday. Hicks called it "without a doubt - the great Olympic moment I've ever experienced or called, head and shoulder above anything," and Gaines added, "It was certainly the greatest Olympic relay race I have ever seen."

All right, fine, but if I'm going to laud NBC for its coverage of that race, I'm going to take it to task for turning the women's 400-meter freestyle into a romantic intrigue between French swimmer Laure Manadou and her Italian counterpart Federica Pellegrini, who had supposedly stolen her Italian swimmer boyfriend or something of the sort. It turned out neither medaled, and Manadou came in last.

Yet that's the sort of storytelling device NBC has resorted to more often than not in an attempt to build and sustain media mania over the Beijing Summer Games. In addition to the usual tunnel vision focusing first and foremost on U.S. athletes, there have been appeals to nationalist flag-waving, such as Al Trautwig talking up the also-ran U.S. men's gymnastics team for having "taken on an us-versus-the-world mentality, which in the Olympics is fairly appropriate."

Nationalism is the last respite of a desperate TV announcer. (Wake me when - make that if - the U.S. men's basketball "redeem team" makes it to the gold-medal game.) I much prefer Matt Lauer's reminder during the parade of nations in the Opening Ceremonies that "so many athletes will not make it to the Olympic medal stand. This is their Olympic Games." Yet even there one found host Bob Costas gushing, "When it comes to Opening Ceremonies, retire the trophy." Really? Over the arrow lighting the Olympic flame at Barcelona in 1992, or Muhammad Ali lighting the flame in Atlanta four years later? The problem with Olympic announcers is they have a memory that only ever seems to go back 3 years.