Colorful Comments on Olympic Color Commentary

Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had taken the path of Sarah Palin.

Before she quit her gig as governor of Alaska to become a FOX News talking head, before she went rogue as John McCain’s biggest mistake, before she won hearts and minds as the feisty mayor of Wasilla, Sarah Palin was a sportscaster. This was, of course, after she was pageant queen, which, come to think of it, is not that far off the career path of most sportscasters. Suffice it to say, there’s a reason I was a sportswriter and not a sportscaster – and it’s not just because I had a face for newspaper, as my colleagues in the NBC 2012 Olympics broadcast booth can attest…

We’re live at the North Greenwich Arena for the Women’s Uneven Bars – Russia’s Aliya Mustafina is set to perform:

Elfi Schlegel: “It’s going to take execution to win this.”

Stacy Bertinelli: “No shit, Elfi. Falling on your ass and failing to execute the dismount that was NAMED AFTER YOU will not win the gold medal. In fact, I think Team Russia might send Aliya Mustafina and her entire family to the Gulag or maybe even execute them if she doesn’t execute this landing… oh wait, SHE DID EXECUTE IT… SIX HOURS AGO. We’re just trying to build in some suspense for the folks watching at home… the ones that don’t have access to the Internet and still read the morning newspaper. SPOILER ALERT: Mustafina wins gold in the uneven bars, bitches. Flying Squirrel: DENIED!”

Up next, we have Elisabeth Seitz of Germany. Here’s Tim Daggett with the call:

“I’ve never seen her, in a big competition, keep her legs together on that skill. She’s really going for it.”

Stacy Bertinelli: “Really, Tim? Keep her legs together? How ’bout you just keep your mouth shut, asshole?”

And tonight, we’re back for the Women’s Balance Beam. Here’s Victoria Komova of Russia, trying to recover from a heartbreaking, medal-free outing in the All-Around.

Tim Daggett: “Slight balance check there – and here’s a difficult combination – and oh, that’s bad… that’s really bad. Unbelievable. She’s off the beam… Very big deduction. It’s like she’s given up. I don’t know that she could have saved that – but it looks like she’s just given up. I don’t know what just happened here.”

Stacy Bertinelli: “Clearly Tim, you are not the student of the obvious that our partner Elfi is. How can you ignore the sparkle dandruff? How the hell can Kornova even see the 3.9-inch wide beam through that blizzard of glitter? Procter and Gamble – the makers of Head and Shoulders – are Worldwide Partners™ for the 2012 Olympic Games. Perhaps they could send a few bottles to the Russian locker room? Haters ‘been talking smack about Gabby Douglas’s hair all week while completely overlooking the flaky travesty that is the Russian team hairstyle. The glitter alone should be an automatic deduction and a red triangle of shame for the Red Menace.”

As you can see, broadcasting is hard – especially on a six-hour delay, especially when the pressure is on to fill the awkward pauses as team officials file protests against the judges’ decisions because their events are not decided by objective criteria like finish lines. It’s not like you couldn’t cut away to a quick peek at a judo bout or badminton match that happened five hours earlier. No, in the time it takes for a Fruit of the Loom sexy commercial break, you have to use your keen insight into the sport to help the folks at home understand the drama that is unfolding before their eyes (even though their same eyes probably read the result on Facebook earlier that afternoon.)

Elfi Schlegel: “China has been very strong today. They were very disappointed at being shut out of the medals in the women’s team competition. It looks like China will go 1-2 in the beam once this protest is resolved. I’ve been to their practice facility. These athletes end each of their practices by standing on their tippy-toes on the beam for a very long time. A very long time.”

Stacy Bertinelli: “Tippy-toes is not a technical term, Elfi. But I share your sentiments. Congratulations to Deng Linlin and Sui Lu, the gold and silver medalists from the People’s Republic of China. Your outstanding performance has validated your families’ decisions not to abort you when they discovered you were girls.”

After being forcibly removed from the gymnastics booth, I landed trackside at the Athletics competition. Beside the inestimable Lewis Johnson, I was afraid I wouldn’t have much to contribute. Johnson is EVERYTHING to track and field that Andrea Kremer WAS NOT to swimming. He asks pertinent, concise questions. He doesn’t waste the athletes’ time. He KNOWS about the sport that he’s covering. I love him. The second week of the fortnight got 1,000 times better when Lewis walked into that not-so-live shot from the field… even though his head was cut off. Either Lewis is 7-foot-2 or all track and field athletes are 4-foot-8 because I did not see Lewis’s face for the first two nights of the broadcast. But that’s OK – I didn’t need to see him, I only wanted to hear his insightful questions because that’s what matters most (Isn’t that right, Erin Andrews?).

I knew I’d better be on my tippy toes for track and field because I was covering the men’s 110 high hurdles – an event of international significance. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, the second fastest man in the world this year and 2004 gold medalist in Athens, stepped into the blocks for his qualifying heat… and failed to clear the first hurdle… just like he did in front of his home crowd of a billion fellow countrymen in Beijing four years ago.

These are the times that try trackside reporters’ souls. It’s why they pay sportscasters the big bucks – to ask the tough questions. You didn’t think it was because they are physically attractive former athletes who couldn’t hit a deadline with a baseball bat, did you?

Stacy Bertinelli: “Liu Xiang, How does it feel to know your family is headed to the work camp for the next four years? Have you done much cooking over a yak-dung flame? ”

Liu Xiang didn’t answer. He just stood there crying. Maybe he hadn’t heard the translator. Maybe he didn’t understand the question. Maybe I should try again using my outside voice…

Stacy Bertinelli: “HEY LIU XIANG – OUT OF ONE BILLION PEOPLE, THEY COULND’T FIND SOMEONE WHO COULD CLEAR A 1.067-METER HURDLE? Oh, wait, that’s more of a statement. Let me ask again in the form of a question: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT TORPEDOING THE CHINESE MEDAL COUNT?”

Rather than risk having my credentials revoked, I retreated from the Olympic Stadium and headed over to the Aquatics Centre. This assignment was a natural fit for me since I’d been watching diving every night on TV and I know how to swim.

Welcome back to the 10-meter platform dive. I have been assigned to the women’s competition because the network did not appreciate my observations on the male synchronized divers’ physical gifts.

Brittany Viola, daughter of former Major League pitcher Frank Viola, is trying to make it into the semifinals. She’s up against some tough competition: China may not produce people that can clear a high hurdle under the withering gaze of 2 billion eyeballs, but their re-education camps sure can churn out some divers. I’m in the broadcast booth with Ted Robinson and Cynthia Potter.

Cynthia Potter: “Brittany is starting with a difficult dive – a handstand into a twist. There is no time limit on the handstand. The judges just have to see it established. When you look at her arm strength, that’s world class.”

Stacy Bertinelli: “Cynthia, were you salutatorian to Elfi Schlegel at the Obvious School of Broadcast Excellence? Of course Brittany has world-class arm strength! This ain’t the Shreveport (La.) L’il Dolphins Swim and Dive Jamboree – it’s the motherfucking Olympics. Everyone here is world class except your sorry ass!”

I hadn’t even made it through the preliminaries when I decided I was done with diving. If I’d stayed any longer, I probably would have tied a rock around Cynthia’s ankle and then watched to see what kind of splash she made going 35 miles per hour after I pushed her off the 10-meter platform. Instead, I headed across the deck to dolphin-kick Andrea Kremer’s ass in swimming.

Yes, Andrea Kremer: We’ve come to this. Mano a mano, in the pool.

It is important to note that before I hung up my sportswriting cleats, I covered more than my fair share of swim meets – from the Big 12 Championships to the Caddo Parish district finals – and I can say with some certitude that high-definition television has been the best thing that’s ever happened to swimming because it’s boring as hell to watch live. Unless it’s your kid in Lane 4, you probably don’t have a dog in the fight; you probably haven’t followed the many paths that the different swimmers took to get to this point, and you probably don’t really understand why anyone would want to wake up at 4 AM and exercise for two hours. Every day. Back and forth. Before school. In a pool. While your friends are sleeping.

As a reporter, you’re looking at hundredths of a second – the blink of an eye – to determine an outcome in a race that doesn’t have any hills or any headwinds or any Ukrainian judges, and it’s all happening underwater.

Oh, and if you’re Andrea Kremer, you’re best known as an NFL sideline reporter. As in football. Now, as we ponder NBC’s choice to cover the biggest story of these Olympic Games – for the folks scoring at home, that would be the athlete who would become the most decorated Olympian of all time (Michael Phelps) – let’s take a moment to consider all the things that American football and swimming have in common… No, open-water swimming doesn’t count, even though they dump Gatorade on themselves at the feed stations… and no, water polo doesn’t count either, even though they tackle each other.

I’m still waiting.

Yes, participants in each sport wear head-gear while competing. Yes, that is a similarity – but a skull-condom isn’t going to protect your brain from a concussion delivered by Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller… even if you’re both in a swimming pool. Next!

I can think of 10 women sportscasters that could have done a better job covering Olympic swimming than Andrea Kremer – starting with Phyllis George and ending with Phyllis Diller, and I’ll even throw in Sarah Palin for good measure. One would hope that they would have at least TRIED to learn a little something about the sport they were covering before they opened their mouths. Thank God for Rowdy Gaines doing color commentary – he was out of his mind with insight, helping us understand how a little half-stroke at the end can make the difference between a victorious trip to the medal stand and a long walk back to the locker room.

Instead, we had Andrea Kremer asking the men’s 4 x 200-meter relay team how it felt to help Michael Phelps win his record-setting 19th medal to become the most decorated Olympian of all time. I’m not going to dignify that question with one of my own. Through their life-giving gasps for oxygen, the swimmers gamely answered her ignorant bleats… but here’s what they REALLY wanted to say:

Andrea Kremer: “How did you feel being on the relay that helped Michael Phelps win his record-setting medal?”

Ryan Lochte: “Really, Andrea? You’re asking me about Michael Phelps? Seriously? Do you even know how to swim?”

Conor Dwyer: “Holy shit! My first gold medal ever! This is the coolest thing in my life! What was the question, again?”

Ricky Berens: “Actually Andrea, I’ll take Michael’s sloppy seconds any day of the week. This gold medal is my ticket inside the living quarters of the Dutch women’s field hockey team.”

A product of Title IX, Andrea was the poster child for gender equality in questioning stupidity. After Rebecca Soni broke her own world record to win the 200-meter breaststroke win 2:19:59, Andrea posited this gem:

“What was that uncharacteristic show of emotion for?”

Rebecca Soni: “Duh, I just won a gold medal and broke my own world record, bitch! What – are you gonna ask me about my hair next? Get the fuck out of my face and let me breathe, woman!”

And finally there was the man of the fortnight, Michael Phelps – the most-decorated Olympian of all time with 22 total medals and 18 more golds than Andrea Kremer has ever won – and the NFL sideline reporter was asking him if, after four Olympics and God-knows-how-many circumferences of the Earth’s worth of practice laps, was he really, truly going to retire? He was gracious. He was uncharacteristically humble. He was refreshingly forthright… and here’s what I wish he would have said:

Michael Phelps: “Andrea, how many laps have you turned in a pool? Seriously. I have achieved what every athlete ever wanted to do – I get to go out on top. I have nothing left to prove. If I come back and I don’t surpass everything I’ve done here, you jackals will ask me WHY I didn’t retire on top. I can’t win. So instead, I’m gonna play some poker. I’m gonna work on my golf game. I’m gonna swim with some sharks, and I’m gonna spend some quality time in Amsterdam with at a gold-medal quality coffee bar and be grateful that I don’t have to get up at 4 o’clock the next morning to swim for six hours.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go find my super-model girlfriend and we’re gonna plow through the Olympic village with my medals in tow.”

Sadly, neither Ryan, nor Conor, nor Ricky, nor Rebecca, nor Michael said any of that, and Andrea Kremer lives on to ask another mindless question on the field of NFL play. At the end of the 2012 Olympic Games, the story from the broadcast booth is mixed: Some of the colorful commentators, like Rowdy Gaines, enhanced our understanding of the obscure events that raise an eyebrow every four years. Others, like Elfi Schlegel and Tim Daggett, never consistently explained the nuances of their sport – why 10 is no longer perfect, what judges were actually looking for, what the hell was the difference between this athletic endeavor and a beauty pageant if the biggest controversy has to do with a competitor’s hair.

And me? Well, I learned that I’m glad I took the path-not-Palin. Being a sportswriter canceled out two of my biggest shortcomings: Absence of an internal filter and lack of volume control.

And for Rio in 2016, I’ll just mute the remote control.