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WHAT THE GHAMES MEANT TO TELEVISION : Sullivan Denies She Was Soft on Slaney

July 28, 1985|LARRY STEWART | Times Staff Writer

During the 1984 Winter Olympics, the press fell in love with ABC's Kathleen Sullivan. Her Yugoslavian sweaters, her camera presence and her style drew rave reviews. Sports Illustrated called her phenomenal, The Times and Newsweek called her a star on the rise.

But the romance cooled somewhat during the Summer Olympics, especially after her interview with Mary Decker Slaney the day after Slaney's collision with Zola Budd.

It wasn't an easy assignment, considering Slaney's mood. And Sullivan wasn't in the best of shape, either, having put in 15-hour work days with few breaks over a two-week period in which she also battled the flu.

At one point in the interview with Slaney, Sullivan asked: "Was this the confrontation that was awaiting?"

Slaney: "People like you and others in the media are the ones who set up a confrontation between Zola and me."

The jab seemed to rattle Sullivan, but she shook it off and proceeded.

Then, toward the end, Sullivan told Slaney: "Considering all your medals and records, you should be so very, very proud at this moment. You walk into this building, and it could have been another time and you would have a medal around your neck. However, you truly have walked in here as an Olympic champion with all the ideals of sport and grace. And the way you have conducted yourself, I think everyone would agree with me. . . . You are a truly great champion. We know you are a true champion, the American public knows it, the world knows it."

Reviews of the interview the next day generally were not favorable. Sullivan was accused of going overboard in her praise of Slaney. A year later, Sullivan still remembers.

"I was offended by members of the press," she said. "The Los Angeles Times and other papers the day before had called Mary 'America's sweetheart.' But a day later, that was all forgotten.

"Your paper said I did a swell (gushed was the word used in two different stories in The Times) at the end. But no one bothered to call to get my side of it.

"I started to wrap up the interview, but they stayed with it. What I said, considering the circumstances, I felt was appropriate.

"Mary was in a terrible emotional state. She was crying. She was shaking. Before we had gone on the air, she had gotten in a fight with her two coaches over which one would sit in the third chair."

Dick Brown, her coach, and Dr. Leroy Perry, her doctor and chiropractor, accompanied Slaney to the ABC studio. Only Perry appeared on TV.

"You had to have empathy for Mary," Sullivan said. "She had worked for years for this one moment and it was all ruined by a terrible accident. Yet the press felt I should have been tough on her.

"This was not a crook I was interviewing. Her only crime was falling down in a race. I thought I queried her pretty good during the interview, but this was a person in need of help.

"The press thought I should have attacked her. I wanted to help her, not beat her. She was suffering enough."

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