OPINION – Are you all red, white, and beautified yet?
It’s a bit difficult to not get wrapped up in the Winter Olympics, which are being beamed in from Sochi, Russia, as we speak.
Two years ago, NBC was ripped for its coverage of the Summer Games from London. Fans were perturbed because some events were given minimal attention, while others seemed to drone on. Then there was the mishap of editing out some of the best parts of the closing ceremonies.
We haven’t yet hit the glamour sports of the Winter Olympics – hockey, the downhill racers, figure skating, and the like – so the jury is still out on how NBC will perform this year.
Still, it is interesting to look back on Olympic history.
The first time the Games were broadcast in the United States was when the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, Calif.
CBS had the honor and built an intricate web of lines to carry the video feed from the remote California spot to its headquarters in New York. The venerable Walter Cronkite hosted those Games. It was still a few years before he became known affectionately as “Uncle Walter,” the most trusted man in America.
One of the most influential things to come from those Games was the development of instant replay. When Olympics officials were not sure if a slalom skier missed a gate, they went to Tony Verna, a member of the CBS production staff, and asked if they could look at the videotape of the race. Verna immediately saw a practical application and after the games, went to work developing the instant replay system, which debuted during the 1963 Army-Navy football game.
A lot has changed.
Back then, CBS paid a piddling $50,000 for the rights to broadcast the games.
In comparison, NBC forked over $775 million for the rights to the Sochi Games. That does not include production costs, which figure to add at least another $100 million to the tab.
CBS also broadcast the 1960 Summer Olympics from Rome, a whole 20 hours worth, the highlight of which was a brash young man from Louisville, Ky. who went by the name of Cassius Clay at the time and who won the light heavyweight gold medal in boxing. It was the launching pad that vaulted Clay, better known to the world as Muhammad Ali, into the position as one of the most recognizable figures in the world.
Of course, CBS had to go to extraordinary measures to bring the Games to the viewing public. There were no communications satellites orbiting Earth back then, so the events were videotaped in Rome, sent via a special feed to London, where the events were re-taped, then flown to New York for broadcast. Depending on the hour of arrival, they were either transmitted from a mobile unit at Idelwild Airport in New York City or rushed to CBS studios downtown where the then-unknown Jim McKay would provide commentary.
McKay would make his own Olympic history when in 1972, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were kidnapped, held hostage, and eventually killed by terrorists in what has become remembered simply as the Munich Massacre.
After broadcasting for 14 hours without a break, McKay finally broke the news that all 11 athletes had been killed, saying: “When I was a kid my father used to say ‘our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized.’ Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were 11 hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
What often goes forgotten is the fact that Howard Cosell and a young Peter Jennings also offered excellent reporting from inside the athletes village as the tragedy played out.
So far, the biggest news out of Sochi has been that Bob Costas came down with an eye infection and NBC reporter Richard Engel had his phone hacked within minutes of landing in Russia.
Let’s hope that’s the worst of it all as the youth of the world compete in Sochi.
We’ve had enough scandals, don’t you think? We’ve seen our share of tragedy in sports as well.
And, yes, some multimillionaire hockey players will face off against each other on the ice before too long, but instead of dollars, bonuses, and the Stanley Cup to raise in their arenas, they are simply competing for a little piece of gold to hang around their necks.
Not really, especially when you take the time to remember that the modern-day Olympics were not set up as a venue for striking lucrative endorsements, show business engagements, or personal gain.
I admit that over the years, I’ve been disgusted with some of the outright commercialization and jingoist rhetoric that has come from the Olympics.
But, this year there seems to be a slightly different feel, something that, at least for now, has put it all back on course, a feeling that, perhaps, the athletes have an understanding of how the games were once described by the founder of the International Olympic Committee, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, as a means to bring the youth of the world together to compete, not as nations, but as fellow athletes, endeavoring to test themselves, share their cultures, and find their common humanity.
It was the basis for the Olympic Creed, which de Coubertin wrote:
The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
Sage advice, even for those who aren’t flying down a snow-covered hillside, gliding across an ice skating rink, or guiding a bobsleigh at breakneck speed.
No bad days!
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- Polar Plungers brave chilled waters for Special Olympics; STGnews Videocast – February 2013
- Perspectives: The business of bringing home the gold, Corn Flakes and all – August 2012
- On the EDge: Running the golden gauntlet – August 2012
Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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