BOB COSTAS HAS ARGUABLY THE BEST -- AND TOUGHEST -- GIG IN BROADCASTING: HOSTING THE OLYMPIC GAMES, WHICH KICK OFF THIS MONTH IN BEIJING. BUT AFTER EIGHT GAMES AND 16 YEARS, HE’S STARTING TO GET THE HANG OF IT. . PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVEN FREEMAN.
Tatyana Efimenko, a high jumper from Kyrgyzstan, will march into Beijing’s Olympic stadium this month accompanied by her country’s flag, a solid red banner that depicts a yellow sun with six lines intersecting at its center and 40 rays emanating from its circumference. Bob Costas, who will likely have to explain what the 40 rays, six lines, and red background represent while still managing to correctly pronounce both Efimenko and Kyrgyzstan, will also have a flag. But his will be a much simpler design: solid white.
“At the Olympics, there is almost nothing you can say that isn’t going to make someone angry,” says Costas, 56, who has served as host of NBC’s Olympic coverage since 1992 and will continue to serve until at least 2012. “The opening ceremony is the perfect laboratory for discovering what upsets people. There are some people who want the event to be treated as if it were a High Mass. And some aspects of it are. But there are other aspects that are like the Cirque du Soleil. I try to acknowledge both. But does that annoy people at either end of the audience? Absolutely. So, you know what? I wave the white flag. The opening ceremony should be broadcast by Kofi Annan and Mary Hart, because it is half United Nations Security Council meeting and half Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Really, if anybody knows how, exactly, this is supposed to be done, please contact me immediately.”
The thing is, no one knows better than Costas. He’s been criticized, sure. But his work on the Olympics and elsewhere has earned him more cheers than jeers -- not to mention 19 Emmys and a pile of other awards. With his current HBO show, Costas Now, he has taken Howard Cosell’s title of America’s most provocative sports broadcaster. In commentary and investigative pieces on that show, Costas regularly takes well-researched shots at big-time athletes and major sporting leagues. And with his work on the Olympics, he has succeeded in redefining a job that was created by the late, legendary Jim McKay -- one of Costas’s broadcasting idols. Then there’s his respected play-by-play work for Major League Baseball games, as well as his hosting of National Hockey League contests on NBC, the Kentucky Derby, and the newish Sunday Night Football. He even had a six-year stint as host of the Emmy-winning Later with Bob Costas, a quiet talk show that had little to do with sports and the understated likes of which we may never see again.
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The games of the 29th Olympiad will be a showcase for sprinters, swimmers, cyclists, and the like, but also for China’s present and its future. Since China’s present and future are not without controversy, Costas will have to be able to present the serious side of the games along with the sports side. And, sure, the silly side too.
“The role of the host is to be a well-informed generalist,” Costas says, “and to also have a really strong foundation in the history of the Olympics, what’s going on in the host city and the host nation -- particularly important this time, in Beijing -- and to know what are the main broad-stroke stories in the Olympics. I’m not Bill Moyers on PBS, but there has got to be some recognition of the context in which these sporting events are taking place. I hope we strike the right balance.”
As we meet on one warm Manhattan afternoon as Costas prepares to leave for Beijing, he seems ready for the challenge.
In his 16 years of hosting the Olympics, Costas has learned …
“I’ve learned what you don’t have to know. In Barcelona, for the first Olympics for which I was the prime-time host, I was studying every athlete. And then it occurred to me that no one cared if I knew who was the second-best platform diver from Peru. And what’s the point of feigning expertise, anyway? If Rulon Gardner wins Greco- Roman wrestling [which he did in the 2000 games in Sydney], upsetting Aleksandr Karelin, the ‘unbeatable’ Russian wrestler, then the host’s job is to find out some basic nuggets of information about this kid from Wyoming and then ask the question that 99.9 percent of the audience, which knows nothing about this sport either, would want to have asked. Essentially, I’m just like you at home, except that I’m wearing a suit and tie and I have access to this kind of information. That’s the approach.”
One misconception about him is …
“People really think the host is the guy in charge. They’ll say, ‘I was watching the platform diving, and then Bob Costas decided we should go to the swimming.’ I no more decided that than you did. Or they’ll give the host credit … for something he or she had nothing to do with. People have sent me letters thanking me for a particular story that was wonderful. All I did was introduce it.”
One of the hardest parts of his job is …
“Sometimes, you’re in a situation where, because of the realities of television, you’re presenting stuff well after it happens. In Sydney, there was a 15-hour time difference [there’s a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and Eastern time], so we’d be broadcasting things for the first time that had actually happened the preceding night -- not just earlier the same day. Now, I don’t care if someone long-jumped 35 feet. By then, the surprise and the initial excitement will have subsided. You can’t honestly have the same reaction you would if it were live. So what I try to do in those situations is be on an even keel. Engaged, interested, appreciative, yes. But it would be dishonest to feign anticipation or initial excitement.”
His responsibilities as host include …
“We have to explain what is going on in a general sense in China right now -- the emergence of China’s economy, its influence on a global scale. We have to reference the earthquake. We have to reference not only their growth and the emerging middle class but also that there are still millions and millions of people living in poverty there. This isn’t National Geographic, but there has to be some of that context.”
The Beijing games are unique because …
“What Jim McKay and ABC did in 1968 might seem very different from what NBC will do in 2008. I mean, remember when we were kids and it was like, ‘Wait a minute -- is that a live picture from Munich? Wow. And, hey, that’s Mexico City. Live!’ Some of that fascination has worn off because we’ve come to expect such things. But I think Beijing is almost an exception. Because even in this era, where if something happens in Timbuktu, people expect it to be on CNN in 10 seconds, there is still an element of mystery and the unknown about China. Somebody watching in Omaha, Nebraska, is very curious about what it is like to be living in China in 2008. How many people speak English there? What’s the difference between the Chinese food that you get in Shanghai and the Chinese food that I get at home?”
The quirkiest Olympic sport is …
“Well, curling is kind of an endearing Olympic sport. People think, Wait a minute. I can get an Olympic gold medal -- the same medal that they gave Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis -- for a sport where they use a broom and drink beer while they’re doing it? Not at the Olympics, of course, but, yes, people can drink beer and still excel at curling. That’s unbelievable. Why don’t they just have Ed Norton and Ralph Kramden show up with their bowling bags and make that an Olympic sport?
Still, on balance, you have to say the weirdest is racewalking. I made a bunch of people mad in 1992 in Barcelona when they showed the racewalking. Look, I know that they are athletes. I know I couldn’t do it. I know it takes training and dedication, and I know that there are pockets of the world where racewalkers are big sports celebrities. But it looks so funny. You know what it really looks like? It looks like a person who has to go really bad. ‘I gotta go, gotta go, gotta go right now’ -- except they just don’t want to break into a full-scale sprint.
So I say, coming off this racewalking footage in Barcelona, ‘You know, having a contest to see who can walk the fastest is kind of like having a contest to see who can whisper the loudest.’ If you’re really in that much of a hurry, run. And if you really want me to hear you, shout.”
Though frequent American Way contributor JOSEPH GUINTO is a native of Syracuse, New York, he is in no way biased in favor of Bob Costas. Go Orange.