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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS | LARRY STEWART / ON TELEVISION

Swimming Story Falls in NBC's Lap

July 23, 1996|LARRY STEWART

NBC, in need of a big story to lead off its prime-time coverage each night of the Olympics, got one Monday.

The story had begun to unfold during the morning segment.

After a women's 400-meter freestyle heat featuring eventual winner Michelle Smith of Ireland, Janet Evans was in danger of being eliminated from the final.

Smith had learned late Sunday night she would be swimming in the event, having overcome a protest that she had entered the race too late.

Finally, there was some drama during morning qualifying, as Evans was eliminated, Smith's entry making the difference between Evans qualifying for the last spot.

Announcers Dan Hicks and Summer Sanders did a nice job in the morning laying out the story, and NBC continued it at the top of its prime-time segment.

It worked out well that the women's 400-meter freestyle final was the first event of the night.

There was a facet of this story that NBC, apparently because of time restraints, dealt with during the first lap of the race.

The swimmers had barely got off the blocks when Hicks reported that Smith, 26, had met her husband four years ago at Barcelona and that her husband, a former shotputter and discus thrower, was suspended for four years after a positive drug test in 1993.

"There have been rumors and speculation by other news organizations that Michelle Smith's times began to drop dramatically after their meeting," Hicks said.

He pointed out that her best time last year was 4:26.18. Her winning time was 4:07.25. Big difference.

Hicks, to give the story balance, quoted Smith as saying she was the most-tested Irish athlete ever, and that she welcomed testing.

It might have been better to handle this story as a separate report rather than handling it during the race.

No excuse, however, for Sanders, with that ever-present shrill, screaming, "That was the most exciting thing I've ever seen in my life" at the end of the 100-meter backstroke, in which Americans Beth Botsford and Whitney Hedgepeth finished one-two.

Yes, it was an exciting race, but NBC boss Dick Ebersol said before the Games that there would be no rooting by the announcers.

Well, if that wasn't rooting, what is?

High points for NBC included Dick Enberg's "Olympic Moment" feature on 44-year-old fencer Peter Westbrook and his escape from the gangs in Newark, N.J., and a feature on swimmer Gary Hall Jr., whose father was an Olympian and whose grandfather is Charles Keating, currently in prison after the savings and loan scandal.

Al Trautwig's report on the U.S. field hockey team's 3-2 upset over South Korea was much better, and less confusing, than one he had the previous night on women's road cycling. A big plus was leading off with the facts of the story.

NBC gets credit for giving air time to field hockey, but other sports, such as soccer, are getting short shrift.

NBC will argue it doesn't have enough time, but it sure had time to devote to the conquering of Atlanta during the Civil War.

Hey, NBC, we tune in to watch competition, not for a history lesson.

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