Good taste had nothing to do with it. It rarely does now that the opening ceremonies of the Olympics have morphed into a cross between Twister and the Ice Capades. All an innocent television watcher could do last Friday was laugh, groan and field one phone call after another from friends who were equally flabbergasted by the wretched excess in Atlanta. But never did it seem possible that any of those silver-tongued smoothies from NBC would make our jaws drop further. And then Bob Costas, the smoothest of them all, almost slipped.
It happened when the pickup trucks rolled into Olympic Stadium—30 of them bearing spotlights and using the chip on the South's shoulder as punctuation in a garish $15 million production number. Instantly and, one assumes, innocently, Costas started working toward describing the pickup as a cultural icon by saying, "In the South...." Uh-oh.
While his thought dangled, unfinished, you could almost hear him kicking himself as he imagined outraged Southerners accusing him of making them sound like stereotypes who marry their cousins and traffic in moonshine. That would not do at all. So, in a fraction of the time it took to write the last three sentences, Costas added, "and elsewhere around America." Just like that he was off the hook, and with him NBC.
The network didn't deploy Costas, Dick Enberg or anybody else in its microphone cavalry to stir up trouble, inadvertently or otherwise. NBC stands to make upwards of $60 million from Atlanta, and it doesn't want loose lips turning the big bucks to pocket change. To the network these Games are, first and foremost, a business proposition. Then they are entertainment. The best sports can get is a bronze medal.
So it was that the telecast of the opening ceremonies became a giant promo not just for NBC's Olympic coverage but also for the emphasis it will put on women's sports. We learned that one in three athletes in Atlanta is female; we heard about the emergence of women athletes around the world; we were even told that swimmers Janet Evans and Amanda Beard went out together to have their nails painted. There was no word on what color, but you shouldn't have any question about which sex will dominate prime time. And it's all because NBC knows who controls the remote at home during those crucial viewing hours.
As boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters—hairy, sweaty undesirables—contemplated their future in the daytime ratings wars, Costas & Co. forged on with a rose-colored look at an opening night that redefined gaudy. The festivities offered unblushing proof that the nation's summer-movie psyche loves nothing so much as exploding whipped cream. The only apparent touch of restraint was that the Army Rangers who rappelled into the stadium had been denied when they asked to wear their camouflage fatigues. Credit Costas for sharing that nugget with his audience. But he didn't have as much fun with it as he could have. Maybe he was too busy trying to convince himself that this mess really did symbolize Olympic purity.
If it was Olympic purity you wanted, though, it didn't come from stirring songs or dozens of cheerleaders or a fleet of 28-foot-tall puppets. You had to wait until the 11,000 athletes strode down a ramp and around the stadium's track, puffing their chests with the pride that comes from having gotten this far.
That same good feeling could be found in precious few other places in NBC's telecast, and one of them was a commercial. Of course, it didn't look like a commercial when a kid in sneakers and jeans stepped into the starting blocks for the 100 meters, or even when he ran through the stages of his life on the way to becoming an Olympic sprinter. Not until the sprinter looked back at the kid he used to be, his story having been told brilliantly in 90 seconds, did the McDonald's logo appear.
But goose bumps feel better when they are genuine, not manufactured. The truth of that took over when Muhammad Ali, a gold medalist in Rome 36 summers ago and always the Greatest, became the last person to hold the Olympic torch before the flame over the Games was ignited. His hands trembled with the curse of Parkinson's syndrome, but his hold on the crowd was as strong and sure as ever. Afterward, the TV cameras stayed with Ali as he was led to the van that would whisk him away from the cheers and back to the far quieter world he now inhabits. It was just a moment, but it was poignant and honest and, most important, the best one NBC had all night.