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Why Is Olympic Coverage Short-Lived? Go Figure

By Tony Kornheiser
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page C1


Come closer. I don't want to talk too loud. I'd hate to disturb the people who are waiting for CBS finally to show Hermann "Robo-Skier" Maier win the men's Super-G.

Whoops, silly me, that's scheduled to be shown next week, in between the ice waltzing and the ice cha-cha-cha. These schlemeils are still waiting to see Picabo Street win the women's Super-G, which took place last week — but CBS couldn't fit it in because of its commitment to show the ice tango.

I don't want to seem like Andy Rooney, but didja ever get the feeling watching the way CBS dreamily shifts in an out of real time that the Canadian snowboarder isn't the only one who's suffering from secondhand marijuana smoke?

Does anybody really know what time it is?

Does anybody really care?

At the end of every Olympic telecast, during the credits, CBS shows this small disclaimer: "Portions of this show were previously recorded."


Akebono could live off those portions.

CBS is showing so much tape you wonder if Rosemary Woods is directing.

These Olympics are so dead they make C-Span look like "Ally McBeal." How do you think CBS will capitalize on all this energy — by televising the last six months of the Whitbread race?

I know our Official Columnist of Joy, Michael "Got Any Of Those Kimonos in XXXL?" Wilbon, loves everything he sees. And so might I — if I actually saw them.

I'd love to see the hockey. Sadly, I'm not on Honolulu Standard Time.

(Speaking of the hockey, how about the International Ice Hockey Federation declaring that Ulf Samuelsson isn't Swedish! What'll they announce tomorrow, that he's Namibian?)

All I ever see is figure skating. And let's be honest here, if ice dancing is a gold medal sport — so are the Spice Girls.

The dirty little secret of the Olympics is: There aren't many sports.

Don't even talk to me about X-Games stuff like snowboarding and aerial skiing. They're for lunatics. Shocking, wasn't it, to find out snowboarders get high? (Rumor du Jour: NBA Players Association wants to expand to a third Canadian city: Whistler, B.C.)

Let's take the mainstream sports. Luge. How many of you have ever gone luging? How many of your kids have ever asked to take luge lessons? How many of you have gone bobsledding? Or ski jumping? Skiing, yes. Skiing is a real sport. Unfortunately, because of the weather and CBS's priorities, we got to see skiing live twice through the first eight days. Which is intriguing because these are the Winter Olympics. Hello? Aren't you supposed to do this stuff in snow?

Skiing provided the most stunning moment of the Games — The Herminator going airborne. Tim Ryan was so shocked to be on live he kept saying in self-affirmation, "We're live! We're live!" And then, as soon as it could, CBS cut to White Ring for the preliminary competition in ice foxtrot.

As seen through the prism of CBS's coverage, the Nagano Games are about figure skating and only figure skating. And the problem with figure skating is: It's not real sports. It's great athletes giving breathtaking, exacting, pressurized, theatrical performances. I'll think it's real sports when the skaters are up in the air doing a triple Lutz — and somebody's coming at them with a bat.

Looking at the enormous ratings Lillehammer got, CBS felt that two weeks of figure skating would draw women to TV and keep them there. So far it hasn't worked. Women, men, children and household pets have managed to resist the lure of pairs ice Macarena. Without Tonya and Nancy cat-fighting, ratings have plunged from Lillehammer. Jim Nantz and Andrea Joyce play on — like the dance band on the Titanic. As far as Nike is concerned, CBS probably can't take off those swoosh parkas quick enough. This is almost as embarrassing as the Hale-Boppers.

CBS doesn't seem to get it.

We are a culture of immediacy. CBS is sitting on the results like it's hatching eggs.

These aren't the '70s anymore, when there were three networks and you could use tape delay for sports.

ESPN has three 24-hour sports networks alone.

We want to know who won. We want to see the event. If you give us the Olympics on tape, we are going to click around until we find something live, like basketball or golf.

You're not going to be able to hold our attention forever with claims of "bloc judging" in ice lindy-hop. Watergate, it ain't.

The figure skating strategy can't save these Olympics. Women's figure skating will get the highest ratings points, but by then it will be too late. We are more than halfway through the Olympics, and no American has popped up and grabbed our fancy. All our skaters have fizzled so far, and CBS didn't show Picabo Street's gold medal run live last week when it had a chance. CBS was showing a tape of pairs skating, of course.

(One of my favorite Olympic moments came on Sunday night, after Picabo finished her run in the downhill, and she was sitting in fourth place. "Fourth is fourth — it sucks," Picabo told Mary Carillo in a rare live broadcast. And Carillo said, "Thanks, Peek.")

There's no Tonya, no Nancy, no Bonnie Blair, no Dan Jansen. Lillehammer was just two years after Albertville, so the stars were still fresh in our minds. This is four years later, and for the most part these are sports we don't play; three-quarters of the U.S. hasn't even had any snow yet, because of El Nino.

We know Tara Lipinski and Michelle Kwan, but they haven't started yet. We know most of the hockey players, but they're on after midnight. After that you're talking about 10 guys named Moe.

It's not that we're xenophobic — okay, we are. But we like foreign athletes. With all the pro leagues we have, though, we like them most when they play here, like Greg Norman and Hakeem Olajuwon. You can line up 50 Finns who have won ski jumping medals, and nobody on 17th and L will care.

Thank you. Have a nice day.

Portions of this column were previously written.

Stay tuned for Wilbon.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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