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Columnist
NBC takes slightly tarnished, but hard-earned silver medal
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 8/22/2008 12:08 AM

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It doesn't matter whether or not perfect 10s were allowed at the Beijing Summer Games.

NBC's Olympics coverage isn't getting a perfect score from me.

Although I will add right away that it has been better than I expected, better than almost anyone had a right to expect - perhaps, like Michael Phelps himself, the best of all time.

With a few provisos.

First of all, like almost any Olympic medalist, NBC benefited from a lot of luck. The Opening Ceremonies came off in impressive fashion, and even if I couldn't agree with host Bob Costas that they should "retire the trophy" for Olympic splendor afterward, I have to admit they were eye-opening. By the time it was revealed that a little Hollywood magic was at play in the "footprint" fireworks and the cuter Chinese girl lip-syncing to the voice of the less-cute Chinese girl, U.S. viewers were captivated by Michael Phelps and his pursuit of a record eight gold medals in Beijing and 14 overall.

NBC built up Phelps, and he delivered. It's a completely different games for all concerned if Jason Lezak doesn't swim down Alain Bernard in the 4x100 relay. Yet that race also illustrated pitfalls. Hyperbole was the rhetorical device of choice among NBC's announcers, and Rowdy Gaines raised caution flags when he said, "That might be the most incredible relay sprint I've ever seen," calling it "one of the most unbelievable team efforts we've ever seen in relay history."

The same went for play-by-play man Dan Hicks, who called Phelps "Tiger in a Speedo," and Jimmy Roberts, who suggested there's no longer a single "Michael" in sports.

Pshaw. Phelps came off as a swimbot, an incredibly proficient swimmer who was less than compelling (forever "at a loss for words") as a person. He made Mark Spitz in his prime seem loquacious, and as for comparisons with Woods and Jordan, let's see him win a gold with a broken leg or while fending off a media frenzy over gambling accusations.

Yet the late-night satellite interview between Costas, Phelps and Spitz was an undeniable high point and one NBC was entirely responsible for. Nice work.

That's the thing. NBC's coverage was technically amazing, never more than in dissecting the fingertip victory for Phelps in the 100-meter butterfly or the similar "loss" by Dara Torres. NBC put itself in position to cover greatness, and when greatness obliged it was ready.

I'm giving a gold to all NBC camera operators and the technicians who developed the plumb-bob camera in diving and the rail cam in track and field. Also give one to diving commenttor Cynthia Potter, who used her endearing Southern accent to do analysis so spot on it seemed she must have been overdubbing her remarks on tape afterward.

On the other side of the spectrum, gymnastics announcers Al Trautwig and Tim Daggett again were the worst offenders in bringing a nationalist bias to the fore. Trautwig kept pounding at how the U.S. men's gymnasts used an "us versus the world" mentality, and I'd have to go to the slow-motion instant replay to analyze the double-twisting, back-flip hypocrisy in Daggett's remarks about Nastia Liukin getting the silver in a tiebreaker in the uneven bars: "This is not about one country versus another - the Chinese have been fabulous - it's about one routine versus another, and I thought that the one girl wearing the red, white and blue was definitely better today."

The host team getting a little home cooking in the judging? I'm shocked, shocked. You'd think Trautwig and Daggett had never heard of Mary Lou Retton's highly imperfect 10 at the Los Angeles Games. My sympathy went out to Elfi Schlegel for having to work with those yahoos.

At least Bela Karolyi brought a certain baldfaced passion to his analysis, for instance calling it "a total ripoff" when the star-crossed Alicia Sacramone was deprived a medal in the vault.

Finally, I want to present silver medals to a couple of NBC analysts who turned out to be wonderfully reassigned for the Olympics. Tennis expert Mary Carillo was a joy to watch doing the more human-interest features surrounding the games. And, speaking of Sacramone, the oftentimes caustic Cris Collinsworth did a remarkably tender interview with her.

tcox@dailyherald.com