When some people think back to the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, they remember Dorothy Hamilll in her homemade, strawberry-pink skating costume, quivering on the winner's stand. Others remember Dick Button, ABC's figure skating commentator, in his Austrian tuxedo, quivering as he told the American public: "Dorothy Hamill has conquered stage fright."
Saturday night, when Linda Fratianne skates for the gold in the figure skating finals, Button will be in his yellow ABC jacket. "I had a new tux made," he said, "but Roone Arledge wanted a unity between me and Jim McKay in the studio."
Button still is a class act, the best of ABC's stable of 10 expert commentators. One skating aficionado said Button, the two-time Olympic champion, "is the pope."
Button said, "No way."
Chet Forte, the director of ABC's figure skating coverage, said, "That's good. It's true. He is a figure that stands alone in his sport. He's the best color commentator in any sport.
"Figure skating is his show. The basic responsibility for the announcer is just to let you know who is on the ice."
Last week, when Randy Gardner and Tai Babilonia were forced to withdraw from the pairs competition because of Gardner's injury, "Button almost had tears in his eyes," Forte said.
Button's voice broke; his most telling comment was an agonized "yeech." Later, Button was criticized in some quarters for the obvious display of emotion, no matter how genuine it was.
Button said he wasn't crying, "though there were moments when I felt like it." During his interview with the pair's coach, John Nicks, Button's feelings, sadness mainly, were evident. Tough questions were not. It was left to McKay, in the studio, to ask whether the duo would be ready for the world championship in March, but by that time Nicks was off camera.
"Jim McKay is there to do that," said Button. "He was working the event with me.I'm the color commentator. Now what does color mean? It's like being a critic of a play. I'm there to give color and critique, that's why I say it the way I feel it."
Button said 50 percent of his letters on last week's shows said, "'You love the Russians better and you're unfair to the Americans and why don't you promote them?' The other 50 percent said, 'Why do you love the Americans and talk down the Russians, so much?"
In TV sports, there are announcers and there are expert commentators and there are very few reporters. Asked if he thinks of himself as a journalist, Button said, "I never thought of it that way."
It is specious and perhaps a little bit unfair to knock a guy for not fulfilling a role he never thought he had. Button says his role is "to try to educate the audience to what the sport is, what's good and bad, what's quality." For that role, he is uniquely qualified.
"I have carte blanche to say anything I want. I've never been cut, called down, or told to shut up. When I've asked for guidance, they say, 'Tell it the way you see it."
"If anyone holds back, I do. I'm reporting skating to 200 million people in the country. Probably only 25,000 to 50,000 understand the sport and only 1,000 really understand.My job is to educate them and make them aware of it."
Button himself was educated at Harvard and has a degree in law. (He never did get around to that kind of practice.)
He is dismayed at the current generation of skaters who practice double axels and triple jumps to the exclusion of math. "They don't have to put in as much time as they do," he said. "And the extra amount of time and energy doesn't necessarily produce a larger group of talent at the top."
Button also has his opinions about the skaters' techniques. "He has very strong feelings about certain skaters and what they're doing wrong," said Forte. "The other day he told me Linda Fratianne is making a major mistake and she's been making it for years. When she makes a turn, she puts her head down, not up like this.
"Now every time I look at Fratianne, I'm looking at her head. He was absolutely right. But he would never say anything unless he was asked."
Button is often asked his opinion of Fratianne, who has had widely publicized problems making contact with her audience. "I never said she had to be a bigger, jazzier, skater. What I felt was that it was a matter of opening up a hole, so that the audience could see into what she was. Her output is wonderful. It's up to us to get inside of her. It's as much our fault for not trying."
Thursday afternoon, during her short program, Fratianne opened that hole, perhaps not all the way, but enough to get a peek at why she may be the next Olympic champion. The marks, which put her in second place behind Anett Poetzsch of East Germany "are not really the important thing," said Button, "but the way she skated. That Linda skated brilliantly and Poetzsch didn't, sets up the thinking, 'She did do it, she can do it again.'"
The point is, he said, "she did it when it mattered."