MY COUCH — When I flipped on the women’s luge, it felt like I had walked into a church where the congregation was speaking in tongues. There was a lot going on and I couldn’t understand the words.
Five minutes later I could’ve written a damn book on these ice missiles. What happened? I had been suitably educated by the NBC broadcast crew of Leigh Diffey and Duncan Kennedy, to the point I could nod with supreme confidence when a German luger took Turn 4 with too much speed: Everybody knows you’ve gotta set yourself up for Turn 5, Germany!
This was enlightenment on ice.
Us experts sitting at home have our own Olympic stars: they’re the snow savants who explain the technical difference between hockey skates, figure skates and speedskating skates; who inform us that “magic” is a judging component in figure skating (Who knew? Thanks, Tanith White); who rage with the passion of a Southern Baptist for sports we’ve literally never witnessed before.
“This men’s cross country race today could be absolutely epic!”
Who’s going to change channels with that kind of introduction?
Consider this a shout-out to the NBC broadcast crews that help dummies like me understand the points system in curling. I couldn’t tell you the time of day in Pyeongchang — or even the day — but I can tell you Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir are the gold medalists of America’s living rooms.
“They asked Johnny Weir how the scoring is done. He says, ‘120 is good, 130 is great and 150 is Russian,’” Olympic broadcasting icon Chris Marlowe joked Wednesday.
And we had a good laugh, because Olympic TV-watching is great fun. Gurus like Marlowe make it fun.
You know Marlowe as the premier play-by-play announcer in the NBA, the voice of the Denver Nuggets for Altitude Sports. Did you know he’s also a former team captain for the men’s volleyball squad that won gold in 1984? And Marlowe has called eight — eight! — Summer Olympic Games. (Make it nine, NBC, in Tokyo.) When broadcast legend Al Michaels sought the scoop on beach volleyball in Rio de Janeiro, he took Marlowe out to lunch. He asked for the back stories, the strategies, the favorites to take the medal stand. I just asked Marlowe if these announcers are as good at their job as I think they are.
“This sounds really corny. But it’s a tremendous honor to be selected by NBC or any other network to call the Olympic Games,” said Marlowe, who politely declined to put himself in that class, though being chosen for eight straight Summer Games does the job. “It’s the type of honor that you get if you’re really, really good at your sport. They only pick the best people they can find.”
What they’re doing is hard. It sounds hard, at least. How many college basketball games does Jay Bilas call in a season? Or heavy-breathing moments for Jim Nantz? Do something enough, it comes naturally. It can’t be that often that Joey Cheek calls a 5,000-meter speedskating final.
“He just blasted that last lap!” Cheek shouted through the TV, waking my dog.
That’s what I was thinking, too! New Zealand’s Peter Michael blasted that last lap! And we knew Peter Michael would blast that last lap, because Joey Cheek had just spent the previous segment telling us how speedskaters had been blasting their last laps all day. I’m telling you. These folks are good.
“I think there are three parts to the job: education of the sport, the entertainment and the storytelling,” Marlowe said.
That, and learning the correct pronunciation of Freydis Halla Einarsdottir (Alpine skiing, Iceland), Akmarzhan Kalmurzayeva (freestyle skiing, Kazakhstan) and Oleksandr Obolonchyk (luge, Ukraine). The names are the game.
"You spend four years getting the names down," Marlowe said. "You need to nail it. No room for error. That's what you'll hear about if you get it wrong."
The education component scores big. Take this example from the speedskating 'cast, where NBC really broke it down: “There are three Olympic sports that use skates. The blade for the speedskater is much longer than the figure skate and hockey skate. The biggest difference is hockey skates and figure skates are fixed to the boot. On speedskates they use ‘clap’ technology introduced in the Nagano Games. Clap technology changed this sport forever.”
Speaking of claps, here’s a slow one, for the women’s luge broadcast.
“It’s amazing how many violent crashes we’ve seen!”
Don’t even get me started on curling broadcasts. Two words: Must. See.
“The red stone is biting the house!”
Or cross country skiing.
“We live for races like this!”
Now can we get Johnny Weir on hockey?