Politics, not steroid expertise, put Steinbrenner on Olympic report

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Saturday night, NBC embarrassed itself, Bob Costas deftly carving up Gwen Torrence for her attack upon unnamed athletes who allegedly use performance-enhancing drugs in pursuit of Olympic medals.

Similar to the network itself, the 200-meter champion and holder of two gold medals reiterated she was sure drug abuse was still prevalent but she had no positive proof. Costas had said pretty much the same thing a week earlier when certain American swimmers and NBC commentators started taking pot shots at the suddenly successful women swimmers from China.

Here's where the rub comes in. Among the people quoted in NBC's innuendo-strewn report was George Steinbrenner. "No way they [the Chinese] could have improved so dramatically in just four years [without steroids]," said this self-described expert on everything.

Steinbrenner, recall, is a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee and, just recently, was reinstated to baseball by commissioner Jay Vincent. NBC wants to keep a good working relationship with the USOC and its leaders, plus it doesn't want to make an enemy of Steinbrenner as it strives to return to televising baseball.

In effect, the network made the affected athlete back down when all Torrence hoped to do is force track and field authorities to enforce their rules while allowing Steinbrenner to make the same allegations and go on his way. Chances are George wouldn't have shied away if approached.

* Once the weak analysts covering gymnastics and swimming for the network were silenced after the first week, the thinking was that the commentary would not be as cloying and inane during the second week. Wishful but erroneous thinking.

Chris Marlowe and Paul Sunderland, calling volleyball, proved next to insufferable after a while. Why, did you know the gold-medal Brazilians were choking their brains out while they were beating the United States in four games in a tournament semifinal match? Chris and Paul saw it.

Yesterday, during the bronze-medal game against Cuba, though, the guys were at the top of their game. Marlowe referred to the American cast as "a very mature group." This is the same team, of course, that lost a match because of excessive beefing earlier, which had all its mature members shave their heads, and capped its effort by drawing a yellow card every 15 minutes while defeating the Cubans.

* Throughout the first week of competition, boxing fans complained not one bout was shown during prime-time telecasts, a fact NBC Sports head Dick Ebersol confirmed and bragged about. The last few days, boxing buffs found they hadn't been missing much since all announcers Bob Trumpy and Al Bernstein did was complain about the officiating and judging.

* A couple of more nominees for commentators turning in the lousiest performances during the fortnight are Craig Masback, doing track and field, and Quinn Buckner, wandering around seeking autographs from the players on the Dream Team.

No matter where a U.S. runner was placed, third, ninth or dead last during an event, Masback assured us, "So-and-so is in excellent position."

Buckner's questions to the someday legendary Larry Bird were classic: "What's it like playing with Michael? What's it like playing with Magic?"

* Of course, a lot of the NBCers turned in yeoman work, chief among them being Costas. For starters, the prime-time host was usually handed pretty skimpy fare to work with for 4 1/2 hours each evening, yet he consistently made viewers feel as if they were getting the whole picture from Barcelona.

For all his melodramatics, John Tesh did a fine job helping boost gymnastics to its peak interest ever while cycling was served well by Al Trautwig and Phil Liggett. What there was of wrestling on the network appeared to be handled well by Russ Hellickson, although a major flaw in his work is the fact he sounds just like Dan Dierdorf of ABC "Monday Night Football" fame. Yuck!

* After serving capably on track and field in Seoul in 1988, Charlie Jones was shuffled off to swimming and diving. He was solid in the face of bush-league analysis by partners Mike O'Brien, Mary Wayte and Michelle Mitchell while his replacement at the track, Tom Hammond, failed to live up to expectations.

Hammond made the age-old mistake of mentioning only the Americans in most races even when they had little chance of qualifying for the next heat or figuring prominently in the race. Often, time was a problem, but once the race was under way he could have mentioned a couple of foreign athletes to watch instead of invariably saying, "Smith, in Lane 3, is off to a good start."

* NBC provided rowing and canoe-kayak with a boost with more coverage than usual and Joel Meyers and Mike Vespoli served the strategy well . . . same goes for weightlifting, where John Dockery and a subdued Todd Christensen proved capable.

Christensen turned in a strong showing conducting the on-field interviews at track and field, establishing a relaxed relationship with both winners and disappointed losers, no easy task. The ex-footballer has the personality and knowledge to handle almost anything thrust his way, but a tad more humility on his part might help.

* Out at the slaughterhouse, otherwise known as the basketball venue, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello described the Dream Team's waltz calmly, keeping the play and the accomplishment in perspective. Not many would have done as well. Chick Hearn didn't, over on the TripleCast.

* Far behind Costas among the men anchors was Dick Enberg, who never was able to dope out what was expected of him as co-host of the morning show. Perhaps that was the problem, the network choosing a "The Today Show Hits The Road" format instead of taking advantage of being at the Olympics with scads of live events at its disposal.

Late at night, working weekend afternoons and also showing up on the TripleCast was Hannah Storm, who made up for the lack of enthusiasm and knowledge that hosts Katie Couric and Gayle Gardner possessed.

Similar to all hands working the anchor desk, Jim Lampley on the lobster shift didn't have enough event action to fawn over, his main responsibility being to introduce features. Unglamorous to be sure, but it beats hosting five hours of sports talk radio five nights a week.

* These were the people we saw and heard each of the last 16 Days of Goop and Glory. The men behind the scenes, the men calling the shots and deciding which sports and events would be overplayed and which underplayed get off scot-free.

Of course they were guilty of monstrous gaffes, not showing more action and constantly hoodwinking us with their bait-and-switch tactics, but the plain fact is the Olympics were a ratings coup for NBC. And make no mistake, that's what the Games are all about up among the very tall buildings in New York City.

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