With three-and-a-half decades at NBC, Bob Costas ranks as one of the most valuable players for TV coverage of major sporting events, from the Super Bowl and World Series to the Kentucky Derby and Ryder Cup. Then there’s the Olympics, where Costas has been on the scene since Seoul in ’88 and a prime-time host since Barcelona in ’92. He says with a chuckle, “I’m talking to 22-year-old competitors who were not alive when I did the ’92 Olympics, but they say that, growing up, they dreamt not only of winning but coming in to talk to me if they did.”
Costas, who has scored 27 Emmys, ruefully admits that he got too much attention during the last Winter Olympics for donning dark glasses as he struggled to overcome a serious case of pink eye. “When I came home, hundreds of strangers would stop me on the street or yell from a cab window, ‘Bob, how are the eyes?’”
Jeanne Wolf: What’s going to be different about Rio?
Bob Costas: Rio will be the first Olympics in South America. I have my fingers crossed that they’ll be able to surmount the various challenges, because it will provide one of the most breathtaking settings for the Olympics anyone has ever seen. Rio is a beautiful, beautiful city. There’s a postcard everywhere you look.
JW: Watching victors and those who came up short, what elements make an Olympic champion?
BC: You have to start with natural talent, but then you need the willingness to train tirelessly with total discipline. Then you have to have an ability to get the adrenaline going but also to harness it and not be overwhelmed by it. It is about simultaneously being energized and calm, which is almost a contradictory state but that’s where you have to be. Now, most of the 10,000 athletes competing in the games have no realistic shot to take home a medal. Their moment is when they’re marching into the Olympic Stadium. For that one night, they’re equal to the greatest sprinter, the greatest swimmer in the world. They’re on equal footing with LeBron James because every one of them is an Olympian marching under their country’s flag. Now that may sound corny, but it isn’t to them. We can never become so cynical that we don’t feel that emotion that they’re feeling.
JW: Any special memories from covering the Olympics over the years?
BC: There are too many great moments, but if I had to pick one, the one that continues to resonate with me is Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in the stadium in Atlanta in 1996. It was a big surprise. Only a handful of people even knew. The way they staged it, he stepped out of the shadows and you heard something you never hear in a stadium, an audible gasp before the thunderous applause. It was exciting but also poignant because here is someone who was once the most famous athlete in the world and a beautiful athlete. Even though boxing is a brutal sport, he somehow made it beautiful. He was controversial, but I think people who resented him at the height of his career saw his humanity in that moment. There was a moment of reconciliation. I still get goose bumps thinking about it.