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Insights: Sports—Do the Olympics Still Matter?

Reeling from scandal, the international games adapt to a tarnished image
| By George Vecsey | From Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

Welcome to the "Complete" Olympics.  

For the past century, they were called the "Modern" Olympics, to distinguish them from the Games of ancient Greece. Now the "Modern" Olympics are as dead as Plato and Socrates, changed forever by bribery scandals and ticket scandals and drug scandals.  

The Olympic movement has entered the Letterman age, best viewed with a self-mocking raised eyebrow as a gigantic scam. There is the stage manager, there is the cue-card man, and there is the bulging sack of goodies: a ham for you, my good man; a CD for you, nice lady; and for you, IOC delegate, a full scholarship for your child, and thanks for your vote.  

The Summer Games, which begin in Sydney, Australia, in mid-September, can no longer be viewed through the rose-colored spectacles and hushed voice of past Olympic documentaries, as if we were entering some holy shrine.  

Given that the Olympics--and most sports--have long since become driven by television, the real question this year is will people sit in front of the tube and watch these post-modern games? Or will the stink of human corruption drive viewers to something pure like college football or professional wrestling?  

Dick Ebersol is betting that people have short memories and comfortable couches. In fact, he is covering his bet with $705 million--the price his network paid for these Games. Ebersol, the chairman of NBC Sports, has come up with the phrase "The Complete Olympics" for this year's extravaganza on three--count 'em, three--television outlets, to say nothing of the bottomless maw of the Internet.  

The saving grace to the Olympics this year, Ebersol hopes, is that people will be able to watch hard-bitten millionaire basketball players as well as truly amateur kayakers. Even with tape delays because of the time difference, NBC and two affiliates will show huge chunks of real events. The Complete Olympics may feel like a sports event. What a concept.  

"Four hundred and thirty-seven-and-a-half hours," says Ebersol, who would know.  

The half hour is crucial. On September 15, Bob Costas will be the host of an introduction to this year's Games.  

"Half of that will be an extensive look at the last two years," Ebersol says, meaning the way officials of the Salt Lake City 2002 committee instinctively bribed visiting International Olympic Committee delegates to get votes, and how officials in Sydney instinctively hid tickets for their friends and corporations.  

"People see this as suits misbehaving," Ebersol says, adding that polls indicate most people have gotten past the scandals.   We already knew that IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch had turned the Games over to the crassly professional by 1992 in Barcelona, when Michael Jordan cynically used an American flag to obscure a rival sponsor's logo on the winner's podium.   To be sure, America will watch the Roman circus of Monday Night Football knowing full well the rap sheets and steroid abuses and financial maneuvering of all those wild-eyed, monster-sized Hessians--to say nothing of the deviousness of the owners.

However, the Olympics got by for decades with an obsequious Grecian formula, now washed out in the rain of scandal.  

The biggest fall from grace has been Samaranch, who always seemed to arrive to the flourish of regal-sounding trumpets. What with the ornate gifts and huge donations that flowed into Olympic Central in Switzerland, NBC must treat Samaranch and the IOC in the same reserved manner the world regards other flawed, mortal leaders.  

Then there is the looming suspicion that many Olympic athletes use body-building drugs and blood-altering techniques, with sophisticated masking agents: Our nation's chemist is better than your nation's chemist.  

Now that the calendar has flipped from a "1" to a "2," maybe it is a sign of maturity to accept that the Olympic Games are nothing more than modern sports entertainment.  

On that premise, this year there will be more action, particularly for Americans with access to cable television. This is a blessing. I would come home from Norway or Atlanta or Japan and discover that Americans were generally enraged over the Olympics they had been handed on the tube.  

"All they show are corny features about athletes who overcame adversity," people would grumble. "Same old stuff. You hardly ever watch an event. And the network avoids foreign athletes like the plague."   Ebersol and the networks had a problem. With a dozen or more events going on at once, a network had to be very selective. In 1992, NBC tried a "triplecast" partnership with pay-per-view cable outlets that was pure disaster. Nobody paid, nobody saw.  

"It was time for a change," Ebersol says. "Plus, the 1996 Games proved that women's sports were becoming very popular."   NBC went into the 1996 Summer Games with the perception that the Olympics were still mostly a guy thing, that people wanted to see the old standbys of boxing, track and field and basketball, with gymnastics thrown in for the little ladies back home. The network was caught unprepared for the success of the American women's softball and soccer teams in Atlanta.   However, after the 1999 Women's World Cup Soccer captivated American viewers--male and female--NBC got religion.  

"Did you know that 48 percent of Olympic viewers are women and 36 percent are men and the rest are children?" Ebersol asks.  

With that in mind, NBC is changing its approach. There will be 161 1/2 hours on the main network, with another 276 on cable outlets CNBC and MSNBC.  

Many key women's matches will be shown in their entirety on one outlet or another. And boxing, even the short and sanitized Olympic version, has been shunted to CNBC because, Ebersol says, "Boxing drives women away, and we can't afford to drive women away."  

With three channels up and running, NBC will be able to show swatches of "equestrian sports, weightlifting, cycling, rowing, water polo, all the sports that have been lost," Ebersol says. This year's hot sport could very well be swimming, because both Australia and the United States have charismatic champions competing in what is supposed to be the world's fastest pool.   Viewers will have to see them on tape delay, however, because Sydney is 15 hours ahead of New York and 18 hours ahead of California, and many key events will take place while Americans are asleep.  

"Full disclosure," Ebersol says. "Bob Costas will remind people that these events took place earlier in the day in Australia."   To watch the Olympics as if they were live, Americans will have to purposefully avoid the greatest glut of Olympic information ever--results, features, opinions, videos and audios, fresh, raw data available on dozens of Web sites. NBC itself has aligned with Quokka Sports to produce  

"If Marion Jones should turn her ankle, you'll know right away," says Kevin Sullivan, the vice president of communications. The wealth of information will have meaning only if people still care about the athlete, both the famous and the obscure.   "As Costas has said, 'The Olympics are the last place where you have athletes who truly sacrifice,'" Ebersol says. "Many of them have this one window to win a gold medal."  

Watch the opening parade. Feel the energy. Tara Lipinski put her spindly body into the crush of the opening ceremonies in Nagano in 1998. The little kid got it. She also won the gold medal. A lot of us thought the two were connected.   Figure skaters and Dream Team members are celebrities, but having covered the Olympics for the past two decades, I can testify that the real fun of the Games is often removed from the marquee events.  

My best memories include a placid lake outside Barcelona, where a Canadian rower named Silken Laumann, recovering from a broken leg, willed herself to a bronze medal in her final strokes. Or, what about the arena down the freeway from Los Angeles where China beat the United States for the gold medal in women's volleyball? I felt I was at the center of the universe, and so did every fan in the building.  

Maybe this year, NBC's three-tiered system will help recapture the rush when somebody wins a gold medal.  

The Games will get maximum recognition from the billowing Opera House, the backdrop for a new Olympic event--the triathlon, with everybody on guard against the sharks who have recently materialized in the harbor.  

"I can tell you that this is the best setting ever for the Games," Ebersol says. "They have been running events in the venues for over a year. They are ready."  

Another saving grace may be the ingrained sense of irreverence in the Australian people. The nation still has official ties to the United Kingdom, but Australians do not take the monarchy, or much else, seriously.  

Thomas Swick, the travel writer of the Sun-Sentinel of South Florida, visited Sydney nearly a year ago and wrote, "I was all ready for the litany of meaningless figures and environmental concerns, the biennial crash course in statistics and ecology." Instead, Swick was charmed to discover that official Australian guides were filling him in on ticket scandals, political scandals and building scandals.  

We may need all this down-under Lettermanism if the network lays on the old-fashioned Olympic blather. But maybe we will thumb our noses at the leaders, but retain respect for the athletes themselves.  

At very least, these Internet Games could produce a renaissance in the lost art of reading. How bad could that be?  

George Vecsey, sports columnist for The New York Times, will be covering his fifth Summer Games at Sydney.