When all was said and done, it wasn't ABC's opening-week jingoism that most indelibly marked the coverage of these Olympics after all. Nor was it the unexpected brilliance of Howard Cosell, the sugar-sweet nothingness of Mary Ann Mobley, or even ABC's Super Slo Mo, the best high-tech innovation since the hand-held camera, although nobody needed to be reminded of its name three times an hour. No, it was this: ABC consistently captured emotions live on camera as sports television has never caught them before.
This was marvelous entertainment—bold strokes painted on a big canvas with much feeling. Try as they might, ABC's lesser lights, including such 15-watt bulbs as Gordon Maddux, Cathy Rigby McCoy and Diana Nyad, couldn't sink the show with their biased commentary and shallow interviews. Never mind Maddux's cutesy hyperventilating ("What arms on these guys!"..."He's all over that horse like a naked lady!"). Forget Rigby McCoy's smirking chauvinism on the night Romanian gymnast Ecaterina Szabo fell on her face. What the mind's eye recalls are the extraordinary scenes of emotion: wrestler Jeff Blatnick weeping for joy on camera after winning a gold and choking, "I'm a happy dude!" Mary Decker grimacing in anguish after her fall. Valerie Brisco-Hooks praying in thanks, kissing her husband, and then rolling on the ground in her coach's embrace.
Of course, ABC's true star of the Games—make no mistake about this—was Craig T Nelson. Craig is the guy with the receding hairline in those Call to Glory promos the network ran again and again.
The major force behind the scenes was Roone Arledge, ABC's president of news and sports. He was responsible not only for the prime-time emotion shots but also for holding our interest for 180 hours. Imagine being glued to volleyball at 12:50 a.m. It wasn't by chance that for two weeks ABC rarely cut away from a live event too soon or got trapped in one venue when drama was unfolding in another. The penultimate night of competition brought a shameful exception, however. ABC showed men's platform diving preliminaries and missed the running of the men's 4 X 100 relay and thus Carl Lewis's historic fourth gold medal in that event. It was shown on tape 15 minutes later.
A more obvious lapse was its unabashed boosterism and temporary failure to show events on its domestic feed in which Americans weren't carting off gold medals, causing IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch to complain. For the first week, ABC announcers were on a pronoun binge—"we" and "us" and "they." Now it may well be wonderful, as George Will said on This Week With David Brinkley, that Americans are wrapping themselves in the flag and refusing to be part of the "guilt industry." The point is, it's not TV's job to lead them.
By Week 2, ABC had repented. Avuncular Jim McKay seemed euphoric when Brazil and the Ivory Coast won medals, and Bob Beattie, the volleyball commentator, finally learned to tell the Japanese and Chinese teams apart.
The camera work was uniformly breathtaking: shots from motorcycles, boats and the shoulders of frogmen; Super Slo Mo, which records action three times faster than normal, thus allowing improved resolution during replay; and—get this—what can only be called a tear-angle camera poised above the right cheek of each gold medalist, ready to monitor every tiny tear duct. This was also the first sports show in which the ads were often as good as the programming.
ABC was smartly served by Jim Lampley and Donna de Varona, and by Al Michaels and Cynthia Potter. But there were two voices, those of Cosell and track and field commentator Marty Liquori, that spoke with special excellence amid controversy and drama.
The suddenly venerable Cosell turned in his finest work in years. Sure, Howard was eccentric, bestowing advice on the U.S. boxers, his boys, in the manner of a doting grandfather. And he even tried his hand at linguistics, pronouncing Mexico "MEH-hee-co" and Montreal "moh-ray-AL." But he was also Mr. Reliable—quick, fair and uncannily insightful—and he unfailingly asked the right questions.
It fell to the gentle, perceptive Liquori to be on the spot during the most emotionally rending moment this reviewer has seen on sports TV. The scene was of Gabriela Andersen-Schiess staggering toward the finish of the first women's marathon in the Games, her left side temporarily paralyzed, 77,083 fans transfixed in the stands and no one coming to her aid. It was an anguishing and even intimate moment. Should someone save her? Or should she be allowed to finish? It was a moral question that transcended sports, yet Liquori answered it instinctively, boldly and correctly. "Someone should take responsibility," he said, "and walk out there, grab her and pay the consequences if half the world wants to say it was wrong."
Liquori: heads-up work in an emotionally rending moment.