This month, as the World Cup season gathers steam, fans like myself find themselves surfing the channels to find any morsel of ski coverage. Most years, we come up dry, but in an Olympic year we can count on at least some prime-time action. Olympic coverage has its pitfalls-never enough skiing, always too much figure skating. As true ski fans, it's our duty to want more. But here's the reality check. I am too cheap to pony up $99 per month for the über satellite package that includes the Outdoor Life Network and too tired to stay up for skiing's time slots on ESPN. So to me, any prime-time, major-network coverage is a good thing.
Tim Ryan, who covered skiing for CBS in the last three Winter Olympics, leads NBC's Olympic skiing broadcast team. Ryan has had what any sports fan would consider a dream career, covering every major league sport plus boxing, tennis, gymnastics, swimming and any other major event you can think of for NBC and CBS. He added skiing to his quiver when CBS started covering it in the early Eighties. At the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France, he surprised the network by choosing to cover women's skiing, despite his experience both playing and announcing hockey.
"I thought skiing was the real essence of the winter Olympics. And I thought our women had real medal chances," he recalls. After two silvers from Hilary Lindh and Diann Roffe-Steinrotter, Ryan proved why he is the big-time sports guy. This season, he will be accompanied by analyst Todd Brooker, "expert guy," and reporter Steve Porino, "on hill guy." Both cover skiing all season for ESPN.
Each event at the Olympics is a one-time shot at the record books, and that undercurrent of pressure and excitement tends to infect everyone involved. For sportscasters, what also sets the Olympics apart is the sheer workload. Ryan starts his research a year in advance and will spend a full month at Salt Lake, by far the longest of any event. "The key to success is preparation," he says. "You have to put the time in." Then, the art is in striking a balance between satisfying both the Olympic viewers and the knowledgeable fans.
To the fans, "live" or "not live" seems to be the first burning question. And the answer is...not live. I always thought I preferred live coverage, like on Eurosport, where the action is all live, all the time. Of course, that's its downside too. Looking back, I realize that while competing in Europe I rarely saw skiing because, duh, we were always racing during the coverage. By the time we were back in our hotel room watching TV, we got to see the World Snooker Championships...live! So knowing the results before watching the show won't kill me. And it surely won't bother the commentators, except maybe for Brooker, who contends that, "just like with my skiing, if I have 10 minutes to think about it I get confused." Ironically, Brooker, according to Ryan, is one of the best in the business at recreating drama in postproduction.
That's probably because Brooker has lived the drama. Brooker's commentating career started shortly after a horrific crash in Kitzbühel ended his skiing career in 1987. When he returned to Kitzbühel the next year, it was in the announcer's booth with Bob Beattie. They have been a team ever since. Brooker's trademarks are humor and creativity. He once donned ice skates on a slalom course to demonstrate how hard the snow was, and lobbied ESPN for three years to install the telestrator that is now a standard tool. As "analyst guy," he gets to work with NBC's overlay technology that replays the racers on course simultaneously to create a head-to-head competition.
Outside the booth, former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Steve Porino will be using his own techniques. A long-time amateur home-video producer, Porino got his professional on-screen chance in 1997 when Brooker went to "Burger College," training to open the first of his two Wendy's restaurants. When Brooker returned, Porino stayed on as "on-hilll guy." He doubles as a reporter for Ski Racing magazine year round, which gives him a vast, current knowledge about the athletes. That, along with his drive to make ski racing appreciated by the masses, brings authenticity and enthusiasm to his pieces. His own well-being often comes second to his mission, as it did when demonstrating the fearsome physics of Beaver Creek's steep, icy Birds of Prey course. "The idea was to glance off the netting," he explained later. Instead, after pushing himself out of the start gate on a plastic sled, he sent himself into the protective fencing at 45 mph in a dramatic, cart-wheeling, unintentionally made-for-TV crash. Despite the whiplash, it was worth it. "I think I really got the point across," Porino recalls. The point being that ski racing, if not ski racing hosts, deserves a lot of respect.
While Ryan, Porino and Brooker satisfy the sports viewers, lay people depend on features to bring the athletes into context. When overused, they can be the bane of a fan's viewing experience. But without them, skiing, for most viewers, would be little more than a blur of lycra and unpronounceable names. David Schwarz, NBC's on-site feature producer for skiing, is stockpiling an arsenal of profiles. "If my features can get people to care about an athlete, maybe they'll watch the event and maybe it will make it better for them." To get featured, an athlete has to have a chance at a medal. Getting a good story is up to Schwarz.
On the road since mid-July, Schwarz has journeyed by ferry to a remote, dramatic Croatian island where Janica Kostelic trains; to winter in Portillo, Chile, where five days of shooting garnered only two hours of sunshine; and to villages large and small throughout the globe. From conception to completion, each feature is a time-consuming process with no guarantee (can you say Hermann Maier?) that it will even run. The Olympics also tend to favor dark horses, so along the way Schwarz has to interview as many athletes as possible for features that have to be thrown together on site when an unknown decides to win all the downhill training runs.
And who do these experts pick for glory in Salt Lake? Even I know better than to ask that question. But they did offer hints. Brooker's best moment on the job was Daron Rahlves' "electrifying" gold-medal run at last season's World Championships. Ryan, a resident of Sun Valley, never counts out the hometown girl. In fact, Picabo Street makes his short list of most fascinating athletes. "There is absolutely nothing normal about Picabo," Ryan says, "from the way she trains, to the way she races, to the way she thinks and talks. I'd put her right there with Billie Jean King and Ali as being larger than her sport," Ryan says. And he's been right before.