Saturday, October 23, 2021
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The chaos of the Olympics has arrived; fortunately, we have Bob Costas

🕐 10 min read

NEW YORK – The Olympics are a torrent of names, stats, narratives, results, commercials, montages and trivia about Kenyan runners and Italian fencers and Slovakian shot putters. It is overwhelming. NBC televised about 172 hours during the 1996 games in Atlanta. In Rio de Janeiro this month – if you count every media platform – the total will be 6,755 hours.

That’s 281 days’ worth of stuff crammed into about two weeks. And 20 million people will tune in each night to see glory and hope and triumph and failure and clamor and drama and Bob.

Bob, at the center of it all. Bob: the steadying force, the moderator of mayhem, the synthesizer of sensory overload.

What about Bob Costas?

He’s here on the Upper West Side in mid-July, and the patio of this hip bistro is too crowded for him. He calls to say so. He sees his questioner scrunched between Sunday brunchers and, you know, we don’t need the noise and distraction. Why don’t we eat next door?

He’s already got a table outdoors at an old-school Italian cafe where the waiters say “grazie.” He’s virtually the only person there, facing Broadway, wearing a navy cap embroidered with “the Spirits of St. Louis,” the basketball team that launched his career as a radio sportscaster in 1974, when he was 22 – the nation’s youngest play-by-play announcer for a pro team.

The former boy wonder, who once looked like he was picking your daughter up for prom, is now a 64-year-old poobah who’s about to anchor his 11th Olympics. For the next 16 days, he is the anchorman of Planet Earth.

“I’m starting to get ‘I’ve been watching you all my life,'” Bob says over the horns and brakes on Broadway. “And it used to be I was the irreverent newcomer.”

He’s aged, sure, and yet retains a freshness, like maybe he’s had …

“You know what the answer is?” Bob says. “Lighting. OK? I’m sitting right here. I have wrinkles, OK? Lighting. Thank you.”

Bob is so considerate of all angles, so careful with every word, that he’d come across as calculating if he weren’t also blunt and talkative. A one-hour brunch with him takes two hours. He chats with the vigor of someone who is put in storage between each Olympiad with no one to talk to about sports and life. He orders an omelette with tomatoes, spinach and a little bit of mozzarella, and then salts the hell out of it. In person, there’s more Long Island in his voice. He is short. His teeth are as orderly as his sentences.

What about Bob, Bob?

“I don’t know that I’m on the 18th, but I’m definitely on the back nine,” he says of his career. “I’m around the 14th or 15th hole. And I hope I’ve birdied a few. Maybe I’ve bogeyed a few.”

When he was 10, Bob was his father’s driveway correspondent in Commack, New York, just off the Long Island Expressway. He was dispatched to the family car to fiddle with the radio dial, hunting for WKDK in Pittsburgh or WBAL in Baltimore, listening for the scores to games that his father had put money on but couldn’t monitor from the television set.

“When the rent is riding on whether Whitey Ford can get Al Kaline out, or Wilt Chamberlain can make two free throws – that’s a little anxiety-provoking,” says Bob, who reported the scores to his father by recapping the action with a flourish. An announcer was born.

Then came Syracuse University and St. Louis, where he maintained a residence until 2011, when he moved full time to New York to be near his grown children. For a couple of decades, Bob occupied people’s living rooms: He did play-by-play for the National Basketball Association and the National Football League and the U.S. Open and the Kentucky Derby and Major League Baseball, he guested on “Larry King Live” and “Today,” practiced longform broadcasting on network news magazines and talk shows on HBO – and he became synonymous with the Olympics, starting with his first appearance in 1988 in Seoul.

“What I’ve learned through the years is that the host of the Olympics needs to be a good generalist,” he says. “So it’s a waste of time to memorize every platform diver from Lithuania. It’s a waste. Of. Time.”

But if a Lithuanian platform diver suddenly becomes a sensation, Bob will seem like he has studied the Baltics all his life. Nimble researchers, just off-screen, will make him seem omniscient.

Bob is not omniscient. But he is a quick study and a sports encyclopedia. He is also a bit rebellious, self-deprecating and obnoxiously unflappable. At the Belmont Stakes in 2011, someone threw a can of beer at him, and he caught it one-handed, opened it, chugged some, lobbed it back from the victory stand, and proceeded with his interview of the winning jockey and trainer.

“He’s got that assured – that sort of slow walk,” says NBC’s Mary Carillo, whom Bob coaxed into taking a shot of vodka on live TV in Sochi. “He’s in control.” They toasted his severe eye infection, which had dominated the Olympic news cycle.

“Tomorrow morning I’ll be lying on a curb in Minsk!” quipped Bob, eyes ablaze with germs, as he stamped his glass down, and Carillo couldn’t contain her incredulous laughter.

“He’s keenly aware of whatever subject matter is in front of him,” Carillo continues by phone, “and he’s got this incredible retention of facts, of times of day, of moments when it all fell apart, moments when it all coalesced.”

Bob is exacting, direct and doesn’t suffer fools.

Might he also be a jerk?

“I’m pretty outspoken,” says his friend, journalist Buzz Bissinger, “so if he was an a——, I’d tell you.”

Bob is not an a——. He’s more of a traffic cop who speaks with the voice of God. “Your eyes are kind of darting from thing to thing,” he says of his Olympics role, “trying to make sure you understand where Simone Biles is in her rotation.”

It’s tempting to call Bob the Dick Clark of the Olympics – a mannequin wheeled out for an occasion that he now embodies – but that would insult his journalistic credentials.

Bob pushed for coverage of human-rights abuses in Beijing against NBC’s then-owner General Electric, which does plenty of business in China.

He shamed the International Olympic Committee, on air, for refusing to grant Israel a moment of silence on the 40th anniversary of the Munich massacre in 2012.

When Ukrainians reached the podium at the Sochi games in 2014, Bob brought up Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperialism: “No amount of Olympic glory can mask those realities any more than a biathlon gold medal – hard-earned and deeply satisfying as it is – can put out the fires in Kiev.”

During NFL half-time commentaries, Bob has opined on concussions, the Washington Redskins name, and the intersection between gun culture and the murder-suicide involving Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher – which triggered sharp blowback from fans who wanted Bob to call the action on the field, not off it.

“They should’ve either given me more time or deferred it by a week,” says Bob, who considers his simplistic commentary on guns to be the one big bogey of his career. “Generally I have two minutes. … Here I had a minute. And it would’ve been better to leave it alone rather than go into it for a minute.”

Bob can turn an interview into an inquisition. He skewered Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky in 2011 (“Are you a pedophile? Are you sexually attracted to underage boys?”) and nearly questioned his way to a physical confrontation with wrestling impresario Vince McMahon in 2001 (“Do you think in some way this type of programming contributes to … the incivility and coarseness that’s generally out there in the culture now?”).

Bruce Cornblatt produced the McMahon segment, for HBO’s “On the Record With Bob Costas,” and was nerve-racked as McMahon, riled up, inched closer and closer to Bob, who was as stoic as ever.

“Everything about television for Bob – no matter what he’s doing – slows down,” says Cornblatt, now a senior producer at the MLB Network, where Bob is a host and announcer. “Great athletes have that happen too: (Time) just slows down,” which allows Bob to be agile and reflexive.

“Later With Bob Costas,” a late-night show that Bob hosted on HBO from 1988 to 1993, was a playground for a generalist. Bob interviewed the likes of Martin Scorsese, Paul McCartney, Camille Paglia, Dan Rather and Van Halen, but he was at his best, according to Cornblatt, opposite “Zorba the Greek” actor Anthony Quinn in 1991. Bob knew that Quinn, then 76, had never spoken publicly about his son, who had drowned 50 years earlier at the age of 2. Bob did not ask Quinn about it directly, but with Olympian finesse, he got his answer anyway.

“There’s a scene in ‘Zorba’ where he’s lying on his back,” Bob said to Quinn, “and looks up at the British guy, who he’s trying to teach the gift of life to – the gift of living life – and he says: ‘When my son Dimitri died and everyone was crying, I danced.’ “

Quinn, realizing what Bob was doing, blinked and inhaled, folded his arms, looked at the ground. Bob pressed on, delicately.

“‘And they thought I was mad,'” he continued, quoting Zorba. “‘They said: Zorba’s mad. But it was only when I danced that the pain stopped.’ Is that true, for you, in life?”

Quinn, tears in his eyes, had been disarmed by a perfectly worded and executed question.

“You’ve been very nice,” Quinn said. “So I’ll confess to you that I live with the pain of having lost a son. And there’s no greater pain in the world. And you never get over it. And to me, he’s not gone. I imagine him living in San Francisco, being a very successful architect. And I just never accepted death.”

A good journalist can go his whole life without summoning such a quote.

The ability to do so rests in a word that Bob keeps using during this two-hour brunch. He uses it when describing what he loves about St. Louis. He uses it while lamenting the polarized, post-factual world of politics and media, in which everything is noise, in which profound truths can be overtaken by a pink-eye meme. He uses the word to address a question about unfulfilled aspirations. The word is “texture.”

“To me, what you hope for is texture,” he says of his work. “Just take baseball. If someone says ‘Bob’s view of baseball is nostalgic,’ that’s a portion of the truth. If they say, ‘Well I thought he liked baseball, but he’s always talking about the economic disparities or steroids’ – well, that’s part of it, too. You can draw a stick figure. Or you can try to paint a picture that has some shadings, that has some texture to it.”

And so Bob spends the weeks before Rio in an undisclosed location, studying for the Olympics, making sure he knows names, years, weights, distances, personal records, intimate backstories. He’ll make sure he knows about the geography of Rio, the structure of its government, its struggle with sanitation and security and embattled Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff – all so he can deliver that texture he prizes in this glossy, harebrained world.

Jim McKay, who covered 12 Olympics for ABC, was doing spots from the Games into his 80s. NBC has the rights to every Olympics until 2032, when Bob himself will be 80 years old.

Bob says: “I hope I’m alive and coherent in 2032.” He pauses for the wail of an ambulance to pass on Broadway. “So that I can enjoy watching someone else host it.”

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