Q&A with NBC Olympics' Bob Costas
Bob Costas sat down with NBCOlympics.com to answer some of the most frequently-asked questions about the Rio Olympics and his coverage of the Olympics through the years.
NBC Olympics: Every Olympics is unique. What has you most excited about these Games?
Bob Costas: On the positive side, Rio at its best offers some of the most visually arresting settings for any Olympics. Anywhere you look, it’s like a picture postcard. Plus there ought to be a high-spirited party atmosphere surrounding a number of the events. And on the competition side, you have a combination of not just familiar but all-time great Olympians – along with emerging storylines. We will obviously focus on Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, who are on the short list of the greatest Olympians ever, and now are trying to finish their Olympic careers on high notes. Kerri Walsh Jennings is back, this time competing on the sand at Copacabana Beach, which should be a spectacular scene. At the same time, you have the possible emergence of new Olympians like American gymnast Simone Biles. And don’t forget about international stars like Chad le Clos, the South African who will go head-to-head with Phelps in two races, and Kohei Uchimura of Japan, who may be the best male gymnast we have seen.
But we are not naïve. Rio faces an array of issues that threaten the stability and the success of these Games. We will delve into those issues before the Games begin, and be ready to address them if and when they impact the Olympics as they unfold.
You brought it up, so we might as well dive right into it. The run-up to these Olympics has featured a lot of skepticism and controversy. As the host, how do you handle that?
I have always felt that there is nothing incompatible about enjoying sports, but at the same time acknowledging the significant issues surrounding them – whether it’s steroids in baseball, concussions in football, the uneasy relationship between academics and athletics in much of collegiate sports, etc. The Olympics are certainly no exception. There obviously have been Olympics with political aspects, some more so than others.
Acknowledging those issues, where pertinent, is the responsible thing to do and respects the intelligence of the audience. It can be accomplished without intruding on the drama, excitement, and theater of the Games. There are so many hours of coverage and so many different platforms that the only reason not to do it is if you don’t have the stomach to do it. So when it comes to Rio, we have to be prepared not only to cover the competition, but also be ready to pivot to news coverage if and when it’s required.
This will be your 12th Olympics with NBC, and 11th as the primetime host. Many people think of you first and foremost as the host of the Olympics. You’ve broadcast World Series, Super Bowls, NBA Finals, and more. But a lot of people identify you as the host of the Olympics first and foremost.
I guess that’s true. I’ve done a lot of different things both in and out of sports, but the two things that people most associate me with are baseball and the Olympics. I’m aware that many people who are not avid sports fans nonetheless watch the Olympics. In fact, from time to time, random people have said to me, what do you do when you’re not doing the Olympics? It’s kind of funny, but it reinforces the idea that for a lot of the audience, the Olympics are just a different kind of television. They get caught up in it, and they follow it avidly.
How would you best describe your role?
I think any good sportscaster and especially an Olympic host is a combination of many things. Sometimes you are a traffic cop and dispenser of basic information – just getting the audience from Point A to Point B. At other times, you are a dramatist – I’m talking legitimate drama here, as distinct from hype. An historian. A journalist. A commentator. A tour guide. An interviewer. And in a sense, part of the audience, reacting just as those at home do to the events as they unfold.
Everyone has their own tastes and preferences. Personally I lean a bit more to the journalistic; toward interviews with newsmakers; and toward commentary where appropriate. But that doesn’t mean that I am any less enthusiastic about the competition or the sheer excitement of it all.
As we talk now, you’re in the midst of preparations. What do those entail?
Over the years, one of the most important things I’ve learned is what you don’t need to know. The primetime host does not need to know every platform diver from Peru or hurdler from Bolivia. It’s impossible anyway. And even if it were, that’s what the experts at the specific venues are there for. As I see it, the job of the host is to be a well-informed generalist who knows the history of the Olympic Games, is familiar with the biggest storylines and most prominent competitors, and is able to take a briefing quickly enough so that if athletes or situations with which he or she is not familiar appear on the radar screen, he or she is able to receive that information, make sense of it quickly, and put it into some sort of context. Our researchers are so good and the technology now is so comprehensive and quick that the necessary information is at our fingertips. The challenge for the host is being able to quickly digest that information and know what to do with it.
I imagine you feel like you’re under a particular microscope when you wade into the types of non-sports issues that you discussed earlier.
Again, I understand that some people are uneasy with the intersection of politics and sports. But here’s an important distinction. I have only addressed such things when they were significant and pertinent within the context of the Olympics. How can you cover an Olympics in Sochi and not acknowledge that this was a Vladimir Putin production from start to finish – and I don’t mean that as a compliment. To me there was something that made me uneasy about it (and it wasn’t just my pink eye!). If the Olympics were in Paris, there would be little reason to make any mention of Putin and Russia’s growing influence in world affairs. But in Sochi, it was a significant part of the story. Putin didn’t want the Olympics in Sochi, and he didn’t spend tens of billions of dollars to host it, just because he’s a big fan of sports festivals.
In 2012 in London, I talked briefly about the 1972 Munich terrorist attack because it was the fortieth anniversary of that horrible event, and the families of those killed had asked the IOC for an official moment of acknowledgment during the Opening Ceremony and were turned down. In 1996 in Atlanta, I talked about the emergence of China as a world sports power and noted (correctly, it turned out) that as a vast authoritarian state, they had both the means and the motivation to engage in the kind of state-run sports system that could include sophisticated, systemic cheating that had marked the approach of the old Soviet Union and Eastern bloc nations in earlier Olympic years, and which of course we now see with Russia at present. I could give many other examples and in every case they were relevant to the Olympic Games rather than random comments on non-sports related issues or events. I’ve only done it when it’s been relevant. The whole history of the Olympic Games, from Jesse Owens to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to the Miracle on Ice, is dotted with issues that went beyond the track or the pool or the rink. It’s part of what makes the Olympics so momentous, and some understanding of those issues and ability to convey that understanding is essential.
On the subject of previous Games – if you’ll go down another sort of memory lane for us: Looking back, what’s been your most memorable moment of all as host?
There have been so many, but when I’m asked to pick one, I’ve always gone with Muhammad Ali lighting the torch at the Opening Ceremony in Atlanta in 1996. It was such a surprise, not just to the spectators in the stadium, but to both me and Dick Enberg in the booth. Dick Ebersol, who ran NBC Sports and Olympics, refused to tell us who the final torch bearer would be, although Ali had been his idea. He wanted our reaction to be spontaneous.
Only a handful of people knew, and they rehearsed it one time – and that was at 3:00 in the morning. And when Ali stepped out of the shadows and into that spotlight, it was simultaneously stunning, thrilling, touching, and when you consider the arc of his extraordinary life, meaningful.
What about something other people might not remember as well, but you do?
Well, you’re right – we remember the Michael Johnsons and Michael Phelps and Cathy Freemans, but sometimes the best stories are in the small print. And that’s true in so many cases. The Olympics is such a vast tapestry, and there are so many good and memorable stories. We can’t get to them all in primetime, but we try to get to some. Because if you only highlight those at center stage, you will miss some fascinating and even poignant stories.
Here’s just one example: as many people know, the marathon – one of the classic Olympic events – takes place on the last day of the Games and often concludes in the main Olympic stadium. Which is also where the Closing Ceremony is traditionally held. In 1992 in Barcelona, a runner from Mongolia named Pyambuu Tuul came staggering into the Olympic Stadium, literally hours after officials thought the very last of the competitors had finished. The Closing Ceremony was already underway, and he was actually stopped by security when he tried to enter the stadium because at first they had no idea who he was and what he was doing there. When it became clear that he was an Olympian, they cleared a path for him and he was allowed to get to where the finish line had been. So here was a guy who had no more chance to truly excel in this event than you or I. But he came to do the best he could. And that’s what he did, even if it took the last ounce of energy in his body.
If that doesn’t move you in some way, you don’t have a pulse. And there are many stories like that at almost every Olympics. Is there hype? Is there hypocrisy? Is there corruption? And controversy? At times, yes. But there is also so much legitimate drama, extraordinary excellence, and honest human emotion. I guess that what keeps bringing us back.
Yes, there’s drama … but there’s also some quirkiness. And you seem to have some fun with that stuff too on the air.
I’ve always felt that any good broadcast has to have some texture to it. You’re calling a ballgame? You want some information, you want some anecdotes, you want some humor, you want some interaction with your fellow broadcasters, you want some perspective and point of view. The proportion of these ingredients may differ from event to event and day to day, but they all should come into play somewhere, sometime.
So at one Olympics, we showed a bit of the race walking competition in primetime. Race walking is big in some parts of the world. I think it’s fair to say it’s a niche sport in America. Nonetheless, I recognize that to those who participate in it, it’s a big deal. On the other hand, to most of the audience, it doesn’t exactly exemplify Citius, Altius, Fortius. So when we came back to the studio after a bit of high quality race walking, I said, “You know, isn’t having a race to see who can walk the fastest a bit like holding a competition to see who can whisper the loudest? I mean, what’s the point?” This, my friends, is what’s known as a harmless, good-natured joke. But here’s something you can bank on: Say something on national TV, and there’s going to be somebody somewhere who doesn’t see it the same way.
Before I let you go, I’ve got to bring it up: In Sochi, your eye problems got as much attention as some of the events.
Yeah, worst timing in history. Woke up the morning of the first telecast, and my left eye was already swollen shut. By the third or fourth day, it had jumped to my right eye. Everyone in this business has gone to work when they haven’t felt their best. I know I have many times. You just grit your teeth and do the best you can. The difference in this case was that it couldn’t be disguised from the audience, and of course it got worse with each passing day. I understand that especially in the social media age, some people are going to have fun with it, and others are going to be snarky about it. But the feedback I got and continue to get to this day is that most people saw it for exactly what it was: somebody trying to do the best professional job he could under strange and poorly-timed circumstances.
The only mentions I ever made of it were very quick and kind of self-mocking. And then I just did the best I could until my eyes became so sensitive to light that I simply couldn’t be in the studio. So I did the first five or six nights, then had to take five or six off, before it got to where at least I could muddle my way through the last week.
Like I said, the peculiar thing about this one was that it was right there for everyone to see. Had it been a bad back, or something that just made you feel lousy, the audience never would have heard a word about it. The last thing you want to do is call attention to yourself, especially in that way. I think most people recognized I was just trying to do as professional a job as I could under the circumstances and be as good-humored about it as possible. I was also somewhat amused by the various theories as to how I got viral conjunctivitis. None of which were true, but in the post-factual age in which we live, something doesn’t have to be true or even make sense for someone to say or write it.
I guess it’s good that you’re coming into Rio seeing clear-eyed. And are you already thinking about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea? Or 2020 in Tokyo?
People have asked how much longer I want to do this – and as I’ve continually said, we’ll take it on a case-by-case basis. I’m not looking beyond this one, though I’m very much looking forward to it for a variety of reasons. Ultimately, what I genuinely appreciate is that Mark Lazarus, NBC Sports Chairman, and others at the network have made it clear that when I want to stop, it will be my decision. If I want to do a few more, I can. If and when I decide to call it a day, that’s up to me too. And I genuinely appreciate that.
Good luck in Rio, Bob. We’ll be watching!
Thanks. It should be a fascinating few weeks.