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Scott Ostler

OLYMPICS '88: A PREVIEW : Announcing Star of Today's Olympics . . . One Bryant Gumbel

September 14, 1988|Scott Ostler

Bryant Gumbel's Olympic Games, featuring TV studio host Bryant Gumbel himself, are just around the corner. Sixteen days of coverage on NBC, four and a half hours a day, for 180 million viewers. That adds up to almost 13 billion viewer hours of Bryant Gumbel, minus commercial breaks and the obligatory coverage of running and jumping.

You'll see Carl and Flo-Jo on the big oval, David Robinson and the hoopsters, graceful Greg Louganis, all your favorites. But tying it all together, bringing coherence to a 30-ring circus, lending decorum and style to a crazy quilt sports fortnight, will be the eye of the hurricane, the cool tip of the iceberg, the agile pivot man, the skipper at the helm, the straw that stirs the Seoul drink, wardrobe coach to Pat Riley . . . Heeeere's Bryant.

Note the monogrammed dress shirt, the cuff links glinting in the studio lights, the mirror-sheen shoes, the beautifully cut suit, the painstakingly coordinated socks-tie-pocket square. No frumpy network sports team blazer for Gumbel, who is taking enough new suits to Seoul that you'll never see the same one twice.

But Gumbel is more than just a pleasant face atop a million-dollar wardrobe. He has become famous in America for three basic reasons:

1. He is a hip, quick-witted, silver-tongued, hard-working young (he turns 41 during the Games) man who possesses the rare talent, in television and real life, of being able to talk and think at the same time.

2. He is blunt, outspoken and self-confident. Some say arrogant. No pussyfooting or mealy-mouthed fence-sitting for Bryant.

3. He is involved in TV's hottest and silliest ongoing feud, with David Letterman. This has resulted in the most serious charge that Gumbel's critics level against Bryant: He can't take a joke.

How does a kid from Chicago who never intended to become a TV star wind up with the most prestigious part-time job in television, hosting the Olympics? Easy. Just be in the right place (NBC) at the right time (the Bryant Gumbel Era).

Career-wise, Gumbel got on the elevator at the top floor, pushed the "UP" button and shot through the roof.

A couple years out of Bates College in Maine, after selling cardboard cartons and then doing some magazine sportswriting, he was asked to audition for a job at KNBC in Los Angeles. He was hired immediately, not as a gaffer or go-fer but as a weekend sports anchor. Within four years he was the station's sports director, and soon was promoted to network status, rising quickly to NBC's national sports anchor desk.

In '81 NBC asked him to move over to the "Today" show, the early-morning feature-and-interview program. The transition from sports to general news was no big deal, Gumbel says, because "I was never the plaid-jacket, arm-around-the-shoulder, what-pitch-did-you-hit type of sportscaster."

After some initial rough times with the "Today" ratings and critics, Gumbel and co-host Jane Pauley got the show rolling like a freight train.

When NBC bought the Olympics, Gumbel was the easy choice as prime-time host. Despite his self-admitted tendency to truculence, Gumbel's TV personality is basically likeable. He looks good, he's cool under fire, his pants creases and his wits are sharp, and he knows sports.

He had vowed never to return to sportscasting, but hey, this is the Olympics.

"How could I pass up the chance to host the most expensive, lengthy, most elaborate production in the history of TV?" Gumbel asks.

Does Bryant Gumbel think he can handle the job? Does Edwin Moses think he can skim the sticks?

Which brings us to the subject of confidence, or arrogance. The "A" word always seems to pop up in interviews and discussions with Gumbel.

"Arrogance has always meant to me that you had to lord it over somebody, put your thumb print on somebody," Gumbel said. "I defy you to find someone I worked with who would say something terrible about me."

That's not counting the big boys in corporate, with whom Gumbel has had the occasional artistic and financial disagreement.

"I'm nasty up and nice down," he says.

Gumbel feels there is a racial component to the charges of arrogance.

"If Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters and Bryant Gumbel all interviewed George Schultz," Gumbel says, "Ted Koppel would be viewed as aggressive, Barbara Walters would be viewed as bitchy and Bryant Gumbel would be viewed as arrogant.

"If you're going to be successful in network TV, you've got to be a take-charge individual, forthright, assertive. In the minds of some Americans it's still a shock to see a black guy demonstrating those qualities. As a result, I'm perceived as more arrogant than Ted Koppel. . . . Can you name me a black guy who has succeeded in TV who hasn't been characterized as arrogant?"

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