CALGARY -- As ABC Sports stumbles through its come-and-go, hide-and-seek, now-you-see-it-now-you-don't Olympic hockey coverage, the overriding question of these commercial-laden Winter Games has become:

Do you believe in Miracle Whip?


Because of commercial obligations, ABC has missed several goals during its live hockey coverage, angering many viewers. Then ABC added to its problems Monday night, showing downhill skiing highlights while two goals were scored in the United States' 7-5 loss to Czechoslovakia.

In that match, ABC was away for the goals that made it 1-0, 3-0, 4-1 and 4-4. Well, at least it showed eight of the 12 goals live. Now, eight for 12 is a great batting average in baseball, a great shooting percentage in basketball and a great pass completion rate in football, but for a hockey telecast, it's serious enough to warrant four or five years in the penalty box. Especially when the overnight numbers from 15 major markets showed ABC with a 20.8 rating and 31 share to top its competitors (CBS, 14.0-21, and NBC, 13.5-20).

First, the commercial problem, of which ABC largely is a victim of bum luck.

In American sports telecasts, we are accustomed to TV timeouts to allow for commercial breaks. There are no TV timeouts here, meaning that Roone Arledge and his production team must gamble on when to cut away.

"It's tough," said ABC Sports spokesman Jeff Tolvin. "You gauge when you can best do it and get back as soon as you can."

ABC usually cut away for a single 30-second spot, but that was long enough for the network to miss two of the United States' first three goals.

To reduce the cutaways in the future, ABC might want to consider a deal similar to what NBC struck with Anheuser-Busch during World Cup soccer in 1986. Occasionally, NBC reduced the size of the live shot to stay with the action and ran a Budweiser logo wrapped around the picture. For NBC, Budweiser and viewers, that meant you could have your beer and drink it, too.

ABC's second problem also was a product of poor fortune, but the network created a bigger mess in the way it handled it.

Men's downhill skiing -- one of the Games' premier events -- was postponed Sunday. Not only did ABC lose its prime weekend attraction, it had no slot to show the rescheduled event Monday because of the U.S. hockey team's game. What resulted, courtesy of ABC's poor judgment, was a case of Pirmin Zurbriggen Holds America's Hockey Fans Hostage.

"You couldn't put everything on at the same time," Tolvin said. "If you didn't put the downhill on, you would have missed one of the major accomplishments in sports. . . . One way you frustrate hockey fans, the other way you frustrate downhill fans."

But ABC clearly could have served both.

There was no reason the downhill highlights, albeit riveting, shouldn't have been edited down to fit into two intermissions of the hockey game. As it was, each downhill segment spilled over to the start of the next period, and two goals were missed.

If ABC thought the downhill deserved more consideration, it could have devoted most of its late-night show -- starting only 30 minutes after its prime-time show went off the air -- to skiing.

Further, it's hard to believe that ABC, which often has pointed out that its 1984 Winter Games telecasts from Sarajevo were hurt by the dependence on taped coverage, would choose to cut into a live, compelling hockey game to show tape of an event of which many people already knew the result.

All of this is made more curious by the fact that ABC has promoted every ounce possible out of its hockey coverage and even got the organizers to switch starting times for the Americans. "Part of the reasoning behind {the U.S. playing at night} is that ABC requested that," said Keith McGill, supervisor of sports for the Calgary organizing committee.

The U.S. hockey team has played two games, neither shown in its entirety. It was understandable Saturday in a 10-6 rout over Austria; it was inexcusable Monday in an important match in which the teams never were separated by more than three goals. And, as the networks well know, any time you don't show a sporting event to conclusion -- or cut away for anything short of a news bulletin announcing a Soviet occupation of the White House -- people are going to scream.

And this week, U.S. hockey fans, many of whom already feel short-shrifted by the lack of non-cable NHL coverage, might feel inclined to lean out their windows and shout, "We're mad as hell . . ." in the direction of the "Network" of the Olympics.