The Winter Olympics are underway.
How many of our readers recall the days when ABC broadcast the Winter and Summer Games every four years?
Can’t you still see the warm and intimate conversation between the wonderful host Jim McKay and you, the audience, as he brought everything into perspective?
McKay would concisely wrap up what we just witnessed, with all the wonderment in his delivery, if it was a special moment, then lead us into what was coming up.
Remember those special Up Close and Personal features of individuals, not only the Americans, who were about to compete?
It gave us a reason for watching events we may have not ordinarily watched, such as Ski Jumping, Cross-Country ski racing or Luge.
If you’re too young to remember those days, check out YouTube, and see how unique this mammoth quadrennial happening was covered.
In the early 90’s, the Olympic format was altered.
Instead of conducting both the Summer and Winter Games every four years, the Games were now alternated every two years. This, of course, increased the television rights considerably, but I think it has taken something away from the Olympics’ majestic allure.
Sure, it’s nice to know there will be a gathering of athletes from around the world competing every other year, but there was a certain mystique about the time between the Olympics that made it an event we eagerly looked forward to, rather than the feeling of “here we go again”, which now exists.
Anyway, this is simply one man’s opinion.
In a career which emphasized the traditional sports I grew up following, such as baseball, football and basketball, I never figured I would be thrust into covering an Olympics.
But here I was, working for CBS, which acquired the rights to several Winter Games in the new two-year format, starting in 1992 in Albertville, France and continuing in 1994
in Lillehammer, Norway.
My assignment in ’92 was to cover the Men’s Alpine Skiing competition held in Val d’Isere for the longer distance races, and switching to Les Menuires for the shorter slalom events.
The Games themselves usually cover a two-week span, but when you cover them for a television network it requires you to be on-hand for nearly a month.
There is an orientation period, a time to settle into your particular venue, and the lead-up to the actual competition, including all the practice sessions that ensue.
How exciting it was to spend that time in the French Alps, particularly in Val d’Isere, the home of the legendary ski racer Jean-Claude Killy who served as co-president of the
My expert-analyst on the races was Andy Mill, a two-time Olympian. We had other expert reporters on the course such as Billy Kidd, the first American to win an Olympic ski medal.
People often ask how you learn to become an expert, in your own right , in a sport that is relatively unfamiliar.
The answer, is that I am a reporter. It is my job to inform the audience as to the facts of what they are viewing.
The specific event, the key rules, something about the performer they are watching, and the overall story-line of what the competition is all about.
What is at stake. Where are we in the midst of the battle.
The expert’s job is to tell the viewer what to watch in terms of conditions, technique, and generally, in this case, how the skier is doing.
When done properly, giving what is necessary, and no more, the viewer can observe the race without distraction and hear what he needs to hear from the commentators.
One memory from our ’92 experience I’ll never forget, occurred on the morning of the Men’s Downhill race.
The Downhill is the most glamorous of all the ski races and is run on the first or second day of the Games. No delay for the Big One.
We shared our hotel at the foot of the mountain with the Austrian team, their coaches and broadcasters.
Their TV expert was none other than the great Franz Klammer, who dominated the downhill for
four straight World Cup seasons and won the Gold Medal at the 1976 Games.
That morning, Klammer predicted to us that a fellow named Patrick Ortlieb, not the premier member of the Austrian group, would win the Gold.
It was a puzzling choice since Ortlieb was not built like most dowhillers. He was the size of a football tight end, 6’2″ and weighed nearly 235 pounds.
He was also the first out of the gate that day, setting the time for the others to beat. Usually, that’s bad place to start. Others wind up with a better time, and the track gets icier, inviting better times.
But Patrick Ortlieb set a time that none of the rest of the downhill racers could match, and won the Gold Medal as Klammer had predicted. Why would anyone have doubted the master?
Covering the Mens Alpine Ski competition was a rewarding experience. But it was dwarfed two years later when I anchored the Speed Skating events in Norway.
To this day it is one of the top highlights of my career, capped by the call of Dan Jansen’s Gold Medal and World Record performance in his final Olympic event, the 1000-meter race.
At this venue, we did call the races live as they happened. The producer would take calls of the skaters that would appear on that night’s program and edit in the standings, and other color shots
he chose to tell the story.
We would not have to re-create calls of the races, just the fill-ins, or “bridges” as they are called.
The scene in Norway was in a small town named Hamar, population 30,000.
The host country built a beautiful arena, nicknamed “the Viking Ship” for its appearance depicting that vessel.
It was the scene of all the speed skating events for the 1994 Winter Olympics.
It was a memorable experience for this reporter, doing the call and voicing the perspective of not only Dan Jansen’s wondrous achievement, but the three Gold Medal effort of Bonnie Blair, who retired after the Games with a career total of five Golds.
She became one of the most decorated athletes in Olympic history.
But there was considerably more drama for Jansen, expected to be dominant in the Men’s sprint events for several Olympics, but never delivering the goods.
He was favored to capture the 500-meter and 100-meter races in the 1988 Games in Calgary.
However, hours before the 500, Jansen was told his 27-year old sister was dying of leukemia.
He could not get to hear her voice on a phone call and then was informed, a few hours later, that his sister had passed away.
Skating that day, the grief-stricken Jansen fell in the first turn and was out of the competition. Four days later, after a record-breaking start in the 1000, Dan Jansen fell again.
Four years later, he finished fourth in the 500-meter event , then 26th in the 1000.
Time was running out.
His last Olympics came in the Viking Ship in ’94.
But he slipped before finishing eighth in the event in which he was the favorite: The 500-meters.
His final chance would be in the 1000-meters, a race that featured several favorites, including Jansen.
The night before his last attempt at a Gold Medal, he gathered his family and told them to enjoy the next day. He would as well, not putting undue pressure on himself.
His coach, Peter Mueller, who won the same event in the 1976 Olympics was not as easy-going.
He refused to even talk to Jansen prior to the race.
He didn’t want to show the athlete how disappointed and, in some ways, how angry he was at his pupil’s failure to win, somewhere along the way.
In his final opportunity, Dan Jansen made the most of it, and then some.
He not only won the Gold Medal, but set the World Record in the process!
The calling of that race ranks for me, right behind the call of Carlton Fisk’s home run in the 1975 World Series, as the Number One moment in my broadcasting life.
Finally I’ve referred to “we” in the broadcast of the Speed Skating competition in the Norway Olympics.
My partner was the great Eric Heiden.
One of the finest people I’ve ever gotten to know in my profession, Heiden, in my view, is the greatest athlete in Olympic history.
Olympic swimmers such as Michael Phelps and Mark Spitz have won more Gold Medals than Heiden who captured five at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY,
But Eric Heiden did it in a sport with no relay races where others are part of the race.
And he won the five winning the sprints as well as the long-distances.
That’s unheard of in the sport. You either excel in one or the other.
Eric Heiden won Gold Medals in events ranging from the 500-meter sprint to the grueling 10,000-meter endurance competition.
That’s why he’s the best ever in my opinion.
How rewarding it was to be a part of two Winter Olympic broadcasts.
Click here for a YouTube video: 1992 Olympics Men’s Downhill – CBS – Dick Stockton and Andy Mill
The “Viking Ship”
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