"They can lift you up or let you down, or have you saying, 'Wait till I get you home,' " said Jim McKay, referring to the American hockey team. "When they're bad, well, you'd like to spank them and send them to their room."
Oddly put, yes, but Jim puts a lot of things oddly, and the point is, the sentiment could apply just as well to the broadcast team ABC Sports has sent to Calgary, Alberta, to cover the XV Winter Olympics. If gold medals were given to interfering chatterboxes, the competition would be fierce.
From technical and logistical standpoints however, the games, which have just moved into their second week, are a wonder to behold, and only ABC Sports could bring them off with such assurance, expertise and panache.
Yesterday, as part of the coverage, a miniature "point of view" camera was attached to a skier's belt and a tiny microwave dish plopped atop his helmet and thus armed, he was sent down the slopes on a test run prior to the Men's Super G Slalom. Except for a tiny bit of picture breakup, it was a thrill ride all the way, live from a windy mountain in distant snowy wilds.
Television was invented for stuff like this.
It's involving, liberating, almost participatory. Suddenly you're not a couch potato. You're a couch schusser.
For ABC, however, the first days of coverage brought howls of angry complaint, particularly when two goals were missed during a U.S.-Soviet hockey game because the network had gone to a commercial. Monday night's coverage began with 30 minutes of fluffy features before any competition was seen. Tape of a spectacular victory by Pirmin Zurbriggen in the men's downhill that day was delayed for more than two hours.
Roone Arledge, president of ABC News and Sports, said from Calgary yesterday that he was aware of the criticisms of the hockey coverage. "One of the difficult things," he said, "is to get all the commercials in." Arledge himself, in the control room, decides when to go to commercial.
"Some goals you're going to show live, and some you're going to have to show on tape," Arledge said. "In placing the commercials, it's just luck. You can be away two seconds and someone will score, or you can carry 10 minutes of straight action and there won't be a single goal."
McKay implicitly acknowledged the criticism on the air Friday night when he told viewers that the goal of coverage was to "try to give each sport its due" and that ABC wasn't there just to cover hockey. "Might we miss a goal and show it when we return? Yes," McKay said.
That night, ABC carried two periods of a U.S.-Norway game and then simply skipped almost all of the third. Al Michaels welcomed viewers back from one commercial saying, "You haven't missed a moment of action here," which was strange because during an earlier portion of the game, viewers saw not a flying puck but instead McKay, sitting in his booth and contemplating the moon.
"Here's a look at Calgary at night," he said. "And look at the moon. Isn't that pretty?"
Only two periods of the U.S.-Norway game were carried because "it was so one-sided, it was no longer of interest," Arledge said yesterday.
"There's a very small hard-core group of hockey fans who are always unhappy," Arledge added. "Physically there is no way to show a game from the beginning to the end and still cover the other events. It's a juggling act, and it's difficult, because there are so many events going on.
"We actually get as much criticism from people who say, 'You cover too much hockey,' " Arledge said. "If you look at the people who complain, it basically breaks down even -- as much 'too much hockey' as those who say we don't have enough." A look at the ratings, Arledge said, shows that "with even the most exciting games, the audience drops off the minute you go to hockey. There's a reason the Stanley Cup Playoffs are not on network television."
Arledge said an attempt is also made to load up the beginning of a game so that if there's an exciting third period, it won't have to be interrupted.
During hockey games, viewers may feel they're seeing more commercials because there are more breaks. Instead of grouping commercials in two-minute blocks, they are often shown one at a time, 30 seconds each, which means more interruptions.
Arledge said the network went "20-some-odd minutes" without a commercial during "the exciting part" of the U.S.-Soviet game. During Saturday night's sensational coverage of men's figure skating and the showdown between Brian Orser of Canada and Brian Boitano of the U.S., Arledge said, "we went over 40 minutes with only one commercial break -- 90 seconds."
Boitano's victory marked the first gold medal for the U.S. and the first time "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played at an awards ceremony. Cameras zoomed in for a long closeup of Boitano's glistening eyes as the flag was raised. Thankfully, none of the ABC announcers polluted the moment by talking over the playing of the anthem.
Indeed, in a change from Sarajevo four years ago, no one seems to be talking during anybody's anthem.
"We've tried to cut down on all the talking," Arledge said. "Announcers tend to talk too much anyway. In addition to that, we've spent a lot of time and effort on microphones, to get the sounds of skating, the sounds of bobsledding, or whatever, and it's foolish to go to all that trouble and then have someone talk over it."
Of course, you still do hear some fatuous prattle. Dick Button, the color commentator on the skating events, is captain of the gush patrol. When it's good, it's "marvelous," "quite marvelous," "superb," "fabulous" and "really fabulous." Of Soviet skater Viktor Petrenko, Button exclaimed, "Jim, he is skating phenomenally. Brilliant is the word for it" -- whereas another Soviet competitor was skating as "the poet Lord Byron" would have. Had he been a skater.
"He's kind of Byronic, isn't he?" asked Button Buttonically.
Sometimes Button and McKay can turn catty. McKay grumped during West German Richard Zander's routine, "Can't say I'm crazy about the music," and Button said, "Well, I must say I wasn't crazy about the program."
The winds can change midperformance. When Paul Wylie of the U.S. took to the ice, Button hailed "a fabulous technique -- precise, birdlike, a very light touch," but after Wylie fell on his kiester Button became the scold: "He's had a problem all these years of just not being able to do it under pressure."
ABC's approach to the Olympics is motion/emotion, getting the most from each, sometimes going to extremes in both directions. Occasionally, as ABC hopscotches among the venues, the motion is robbed of context. It becomes just movement pared down to cold kinetic essence: a puck streaking along, a skier taking a tumble, a bobsled whizzing through the chute, or those merry lugers luging themselves in the snow.
You know you're watching some kind of winter sport, but all the other details get lost in a blur.
The other extreme is probably more annoying, when the emotional content of an event is hyped to high heaven by the ABC commentators. The bad luck and personal tragedy of U.S. skater Dan Jansen -- who fell in two separate events and whose sister died of leukemia -- were nearly turned into mawkish melodrama.
Overeager to flog the story, Jack Whitaker approached Jansen's brother Mike on Thursday night after Jansen's second spill.
"Mike Jansen here, I know you've had a chance to talk to your brother. What did he say?"
"I haven't talked to him yet."
"No, I haven't talked to him. I'm going to go down there shortly after this."
Whitaker ended the interview by saying, "Our sympathies and prayers are with you."
Figure-skating interviewer David Santee, in black tie, asks the really awesome questions, as of Brian Orser: "With the awesome pressure you were under, what went through your mind in the triple flip?"
Honestly, what can go through one's mind in a triple flip?
Not everything everybody says is dumb, by a long shot. Whitaker did a sweet sum-up after Saturday night's Battle of Brians skating events. "I think the artistry in this sport has to be disguising the athleticism with style and grace and elegance," he said, "and what we have had here tonight, of course, was an athletic artist and an artistic athlete."
Old complaints about Olympic coverage can be revived. The commentators belabor any U.S.-Soviet matchup to the exclusion of all else. A brilliant performance by, say, a Japanese athlete can go ignored in the obsession with Russian-American rivalries. The commentators do keep correcting themselves when they say "the Russians," however, since the Soviets have let it be known they are not all Russians.
One thing that irks the commentators is when things do not go precisely as they predicted. They don't realize that surprises are a welcome part of the events -- an indispensable part. So they can get cranky when projected winners lose and projected losers win. They always blame the wind.
Boitano's victory Saturday was notable partly because it put at least a momentary kibosh on all the whining and whimpering about the absence of U.S. gold medals.
Four of the most discouraging words in all of Olympiana are "Up close and personal." They signal the arrival of yet another biographical featurette full of piety and platitudes. By ABC's calculations, there never has been an Olympic athlete who was in it for personal gain. It's all in a spirit of noble idealism. The toughest, most substantial features on Olympic athletes are usually on the other two networks' newscasts.
A profile of U.S. hockey team coach Dave Peterson went to great lengths to establish what a standoffish introvert he allegedly is. He "shuns the limelight" fanatically, said McKay. But this very private guy did allow an ABC film crew into his house to observe his family eating and saying grace, and he did grant a lengthy interview.
Then he was interviewed on tape two minutes later from Calgary.
Too many of these features in a row and ABC's Olympic coverage turns into just a festival of packaging. The spontaneity is suppressed, and the sense of event diminished. A viewer can get the feeling that the whole thing was taped weeks ago and then edited into a tidy and predictable show. This is one thing Arledge and company have to guard against.
But for the most part, the coverage has been filled with splendid sights, and the sense of internationalism simply cannot be suppressed. There is something inspiring, if curiously so, about watching an West German skater perform to a medley from America's "West Side Story."
"You can't do anything as long, as important and as involved as the Olympics and not have some people unhappy," Arledge said yesterday. There is much to grumble about. But there is more to commend.
In hockey, they have a term called "quality shots." The ingenuity and daring of the intrepid ABC camera operators and other technicians have produced more quality shots already than one could count. ABC has set standards in this kind of coverage that NBC Sports, which has the summer games from Seoul, will be hard pressed to equal.
And beyond the impressiveness of the technical achievement and the varied pleasures of the competitions themselves, and whatever nationalistic pride one feels, there's the obvious satisfaction to be gained from watching fellow humans struggling, for whatever motive, to excel.
Normally on television, week in and week out, you see people richly rewarded for doing nothing, or for doing nothing worth doing. Actors who can't act become stars. Contestants on game shows win fabulous prizes frivolously. Mediocre entertainers are showered with waves of applause and cheering.
The Olympics are a change from that. The Olympics are a refreshment. The Olympians earn their cheers, and ABC has earned some, too.