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In case news breaks out at the Games

Set for terrorism or scandal, NBC has a big contingent of nonsports personnel in Athens.

August 20, 2004|David Bauder | Associated Press

NEW YORK — If the Olympic ideals of peace and brotherhood could be counted on, Steve Capus might not be in Athens now.

Instead, he's part of a force of 250 NBC News employees at the Olympics, serving in the unique role of "news producer in waiting" if a major nonsports story breaks out.

It's his job to take over NBC's broadcasts from sports producer Dick Ebersol in the event of a terrorist attack or other big story. It's a role no one wants him to fill.

"Everyone feels like they can't let their guard down," said Capus, executive producer of NBC's "Nightly News." "We hear that from top officials on down. They just keep reminding everyone."

Capus attended the Salt Lake City Olympics with anchor Tom Brokaw. This is the first time NBC has formalized his role, and the network backed it up with about 100 more news employees than traveled to Sydney in 2000.

Given the number of reporters in Athens, NBC News had better hope another major news story along the lines of Hurricane Charley doesn't happen while they're away.

Bob Hager, one of the busiest "Nightly News" reporters, is covering security, Richard Engel was brought in from Iraq and did a story about military preparations, and Kelly O'Donnell, Martin Fletcher, Jim Maceda, Natalie Morales, Hota Kotb, Kerry Sanders, Dennis Murphy and Rehema Ellis all are on hand.

Sanders, for example, did a report on the soccer matches held on Crete, scheduled there largely for security reasons -- it's easier to police an island.

The relative quiet so far has led Brian Williams, Brokaw's successor, to duck in and out of Athens cafes to report how merchants haven't seen the windfall they expected.

Capus also produces each day's edition of "Nightly News," which Brokaw has anchored live at 1:30 a.m. Athens time.

When the Centennial Park bombing happened in Atlanta in 1996, the coverage was directed by the overnight sports producer -- a job the person was unequipped to handle.

"What the news division does that sports doesn't have to do is the news division has to play the game of 'what if,' " Capus said. "We have to plan out if something happens and, if it does happen, what are we going to do about it? Sports is here to cover the things that are, by and large, predictable."

Potential terrorism isn't the only story. News reporters will step in if something happens similar to the skating judging scandal in Salt Lake City or if doping among athletes continues as a major story.

It's still early, but Capus said he hasn't heard anyone muttering about whether the news presence is overkill.

"My hunch is they won't," he said. "Everyone recognizes that this is what needed to be done. We knew the kind of intelligence that was going on about threats at these games and we knew the direction of the world in which these games are being held. This is, sadly, the world in which we live in."

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