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NBC's Roberts adds dash of color to Games

Posted: Saturday August 28, 2004 3:27AM; Updated: Saturday August 28, 2004 3:27AM
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NEW YORK (AP) -- Throughout the Athens Games, Jimmy Roberts' quirky series of "Olympic moments" have added spice to a prime-time NBC broadcast that can taste a little bland without them.

The "moments" are feature stories on everything from the history of the games, the quiet advance of women in the Olympics, and the place where Greeks go to wind down (if they ever get wound up).

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They're a welcome break from NBC's formula, particularly as the days go on and broadcasts start to run into one another. Without Roberts, the telecasts have done little to reflect the vibrant personality of the host city.

In one of his reports, the screen showed the Afghan woman who carried her country's flag in the Athens opening ceremony. Before the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan -- which started competing in 1936 -- had never sent a woman to the Olympics.

"How many of those lost in the moment could have possibly known that Nina Suratger was carrying the flag for more than just a country?" Roberts said. "Sometimes the things that happen quietly end up making the most noise."

Back home, an Afghan soldier who guards the field where an Olympic runner trains tells the camera: "If she were my sister, I would kill her for showing herself in public."

Only eight years ago, 28 competing countries didn't send a single female athlete. In 2004, only five countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had all-male delegations, Roberts reported.

"Tonight's feature may be the finest work of Jimmy's career," NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol said shortly after it aired. Unfortunately, it ran on a Saturday night, generally the least-watched night on TV.

Roberts and his bosses were not immediately available for an interview about his role, NBC said.

Roberts, 47, is doing the sort of stories that Jack Whittaker or Jim McKay did late in their careers, said veteran sports producer Michael Weisman.

"Jimmy is a contemporary of much of the audience," Weisman said. "He's a baby boomer, so I think his essays are a tad more relatable than if they came from an older generation. He's a competitor and he takes a lot of pride in those two-minute pieces."

It's Roberts' third Olympics for NBC.

He began his career as a newspaper reporter in 1975, and often pokes fun at his sports instincts by saying he attended the 1980 "miracle" hockey game between the U.S. and Soviet Union in Lake Placid but left early when the girl he was chasing hadn't shown up.

He was a writer and producer for Howard Cosell at ABC Sports and spent many years at ESPN, before leaving for NBC in 2000. Roberts covers golf and tennis when it's not Olympic time at NBC, a network that has sharply cut back on sports coverage.

In Greece, Roberts was sent to Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic games and delivered a fascinating report on the brutality of the original competition.

He also covered the shot put competition in Olympia -- later to be marred by a doping disqualification -- and reveled in a day where the events took second stage to the venue.

"The world's biggest sports event for a day seemed like it was being held in Mayberry," he said. "And, for a time, had the feel of a really big high school track meet."

His features on a beloved Greek weightlifter and the Athens neighborhood of Plaka, described as a 10-block region where "you find the history of Greece in miniature," shone a light on the host country's soul.

As the liquor flowed all around, NBC's cameras caught a picture of a blissful man dancing with a woman who looked half -- no, make that a third -- his age.

"It isn't only a place to gather, it's an attitude, it's a window from which a country reveals itself in a most naked way," he said. "Time here is meaningless."

That feature, which aired Wednesday, wasn't one of Roberts' best. He didn't put enough meat behind his generalities about Greek culture, and the writing felt rushed.

Then again, Roberts had a ready-made excuse: He left the Plaka area at 3:30 a.m.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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