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Guest Message by DevFuse

DirectTV- NBC puts offbeat sports on road to respectability


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Posted 18 February 2002 - 01:00 PM


PARK CITY -- The Olympics give us a chance to take a good close look at sports we'd otherwise never watch -- if you can even find them on TV.

When else, after all, will you hear something like NBC bobsled reporter Mary Carillo's on-air comment Sunday night about the designs on the sleds in the men's two-man bobsled final. Carillo, noting the shark design on the Virgin Islands' team sled: ''It's sleek, it's saucy, it's predatory -- it's fabulous!''

Or, this comment from NBC analyst John Morgan as Christoph Langen won a gold medal in Sunday's final: The German gold medalist raced with a ''Bavarian arrogance.''

Since it's the Olympics, these speedsters can't have product logos on their rigs or take TV cameras on their rides. But NBC's ''speed traps'' along the course show sliders' speeds topping 80 mph -- and nobody has roll bars. Kelly Atkinson, about to direct NBC's coverage Sunday, said those braving the ''speed and terror'' of these sports shouldn't take a back seat even to the drivers in NBC's Daytona 500: ''I'd give these guys just as much props.''

Says NBC producer Mike Baker: ''I look at this sport like hockey. If you saw it in person once, you'd want to see it every day. Standing there, you hear the sleds coming when they're seven seconds away -- it's like a train!''

But with only two Olympic-style sliding tracks in the USA, the 12,500-capacity track here and another in Lake Placid, N.Y., not many people get that chance. Catch this while you can: NBC's sliding coverage includes the debut of Olympic women's bobsled, skeleton's return to the Olympics and the men's four-man bobsled.

You'll see more than crashes. NBC luge analyst Duncan Kennedy got his start in the sport and TV as a gofer at ABC's 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid -- his duties included shining Jim McKay's shoes -- and used his earnings to buy his first luge sled. Going on to become a three-time Olympian, he learned how TV treated the sport: ''All they ever showed was crashes. Literally. But it's come full circle. Here, people thought the course would be too easy -- you don't just want people winging it down the course.''

But NBC's Baker says he doesn't look for crashes. ''We haven't even shown some of them,'' he says. ''Again, it's like hockey -- you don't just want to see fights leading the highlights.'' Baker, however, says he felt obligated to show Venezuelan luger Iginia Boccalandro in a wild crash that injured a Games volunteer: ''We showed that to show we shouldn't even be out there.''

Still, the skeleton event might truly startle viewers. It startled NBC analyst Bonny Warner, the longtime luge star who hoped to compete as a bobsledder here: ''I've been sliding on ice for 20 years; it's second nature to me. To go headfirst is very scary even for me.''

That's right, headfirst. Your chin hurtles just inches above the same track used for the bobsled and luge. These are the extreme sports that predated today's extreme sports. Still, Warner, a pilot for United Airlines, says skeleton actually is the safest of the three sliding sports, in part because its sled is heavier than a luge sled. And don't, she says, get the wrong idea about all this: ''Daredevils don't do well in any of these three sports.''

That comes through in NBC's coverage, which treats them as more than simply crashes waiting to happen. Analyst Morgan, a TV veteran who began sliding when he signed up for PeeWee bobsled in Lake Placid at age 5, is analytical. Off air, however, he can seem a bit nostalgic for old Olympic tracks, used through 1972 and built with natural ice that made for rough sledding. ''Then it was man against mountain,'' he says. ''There was a quietness among competitors. Now, they ask each how they're feeling, where they went to dinner. With this course being an engineering marvel, they aren't worried about the mountain.''

Maybe so, says Warner. But, she suggests, it's just as well: ''How good would the Daytona 500 be if it was just go-karts going downhill?''

And some fun TV. Tuesday, Warner takes viewers on a bobsled ride with a point-of-view camera as she actually narrates the trip down. For Wednesday, NBC strapped a camera on a U.S. skeleton coach and takes us for a ride. And in Carillo, a veteran TV tennis analyst as well as ski reporter at previous Winter Games, NBC offers a reporter who knows she has to hustle: ''I'm just trying to put Corn Flakes on the table, pay my mortgage. OK, I'm in ladies handbags, the notions department. But, it's the Olympics!''

And Morgan sees a star in the making in skeleton: ''By 2010, it will be the most popular of these sports. You can point your head downhill on a Flexible Flyer and have a flashback to what you just saw on TV!''




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