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WHAT THE GAMES MEANT TO TELEVISION : ABC's Ruhe Got the Responsibility, And Later the Acclaim, for Network

July 28, 1985|LARRY STEWART | Times Staff Writer

When Los Angeles made its bid to be the host of the 1984 Summer Olympics during an International Olympic Committee meeting at Athens in May of 1978, three representatives of ABC were there--Roone Arledge, John Martin and Jeff Ruhe, a 26-year-old Stanford graduate.

After ABC bid $225 million and got the contract to televise the '84 Summer Olympics in the fall of 1979, the responsibility of planning the television coverage fell upon the young shoulders of Ruhe. He became ABC's coordinating producer for both the Winter Games at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and the Summer Games at Los Angeles.

ABC's crew for the Summer Games would grow to 3,500, but Ruhe was one of the first--and one of the most important. Arledge, the president of both the network's sports and news departments, could not devote his full attention to the Games until they were actually about to begin. And Martin, vice president of sports programming, left the network about a year before the Summer Games to join Don Ohlmeyer in the formation of a communications company.

So for Ruhe, the years leading up to the Los Angeles Games were busy and hectic ones. But today, he looks back on it all with fondness.

"It was very tough to go home (to New York) on the 13th of August," Ruhe said. "I felt great that everything had gone so well, yet I was also disappointed it was over. I knew that I would probably never get another chance to do anything professionally that would be as rewarding and challenging."

The first thing Ruhe did after the Games was take a vacation. He and his wife Courtney, a daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, went to Nantucket, R.I. Ruhe had earned some time off.

For ABC, the Los Angeles Games were a success financially, in the ratings, and, for the most part, artistically. And Ruhe was one of the many who could take a bow.

"When you think that we were on the air for 180 hours and you think of what was achieved, it was quite an accomplishment," Ruhe said. "And what the L.A. Organizing Committee did cannot be measured. It was an amazing, ongoing achievement."

Another key person in the success ABC enjoyed was Marvin Bader, vice president in charge of Olympic operations. It was Bader's responsibility to see that all the pieces were in place so that ABC's 180 hours of domestic coverage and its 1,300 hours of world-wide coverage would go smoothly.

Bader, who has worked on eight Olympics for ABC, got involved in the 1984 Summer Games about a year before the network won the contract. Bader had to figure out how much it would cost to televise the Games before ABC could submit a bid.

Then came the hard work.

"It was such a huge project that we had to break it down into manageable pieces and go from there," he said.

"It now seems as though it was all so easy. But that's because the Games were so bloody successful. Had they been a bomb, I'm sure everything would have seemed very tough.

"This wasn't just a sporting event; it was a happening, and that's the way we covered it. It was a championship season for everyone involved, Roone and his staff, Peter Ueberroth and his staff, Mayor Bradley and the people of Los Angeles. And I think we did a pretty good job of documenting it all."

But ABC's coverage was not without its flaws.

Probably the network's biggest single mistake came on the final day of track and field, when Carl Lewis went after his fourth gold medal in the 400-meter relay. While the race was being run, ABC was showing men's platform diving preliminaries. Then came a commercial break and an "up close and personal" of Lewis before the relay was finally shown, about 15 minutes after the race had actually taken place.

At the time, ABC released a statement that said, in part, "We should have covered it live." Looking back, Ruhe now says: "We fell asleep at the switch. But taking the whole picture into consideration, it is hardly worth even mentioning."

Early in the Games, ABC was criticized for being too pro-American.

"Publications that criticized us, like Time and Newsweek, had red, while and blue all over their covers," Ruhe said. "The Los Angeles Times had Americans all over page one of its Olympic sections.

"Things went very smoothly from the start. When the problems that were expected with traffic, tickets and smog didn't materialize, reporters were looking for something (controversial) to write about."

Another common criticism of ABC was that it virtually ignored some sports, such as soccer and baseball.

"We pleaded with the soccer federation to move some games to daytime so we could give them more coverage," Ruhe said. "We thought they might because then the games could have been shown live in prime time in Europe. But because of ticket sales and hot weather, they refused.

"Also, the caliber of Olympic soccer is not the same as World Cup competition. And, let's face it, soccer is not as popular in the United States as some of the other Olympic sports such as track and field and gymnastics."

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